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Indian women looking for encore

Chandigarh, January 20

There is no added pressure this time, no weight of expectations that demand nothing less than the title.

The Asia Cup has never held the same importance as the Asian Games. But winning the continental cup had the added benefit of earning a World Cup berth. It meant that winning the title was everything, and even second place meant nothing.

This time, though, the disruptions caused by Covid-19 have taken that fight-till-death thrill out of the event. Due to the “international calendar congestion” caused by the postponements of competitions, including the Tokyo Olympics, the international body (FIH) cancelled the qualifying events for the World Cup, to be held later this year. Instead, the continental championships have received extra quota places.

It means that the top four finishers at the Asia Cup in Muscat, Oman, will qualify for the World Cup. This has substantially eased the pressure on all teams. India, who are the defending champions, have never finished outside the top-four.

It does not, however, mean that there will be no added motivation for the Indian team. Despite having been a constant contender at the event — they have missed the podium only three times in eight appearances — India have never been able to stamp their authority. They have won the title twice, and their victory in 2017 came after 13 years.

On a high after their fourth-place finish at the Tokyo Olympics, India will be eager to retain their title and continue their recent dominance in the continent. This time, world No. 9 India also have ranking on their side. India’s main challenge will come from China, Japan and South Korea, all multiple-time champions in the past. World No. 12 South Korea are the most successful side with three titles, while No. 14 Japan and No. 10 China have lifted the trophy twice each.

India will face Japan in the pool stage. Irrespective of the result of their match, both sides are expected to advance to the semifinals. The other two teams in the pool are minnows Malaysia and Singapore. Reigning Asian Games champions Japan won the Asian Champions Trophy in December. India had to pull out of the tournament midway due to Covid-19 cases in the team.

The only thing going against the side is their lack of match practice. The Asia Cup will be their ‘first’ tournament after the Olympics. More importantly, though, it will be the first event of a busy year for the team. With the World Cup, Commonwealth Games, Asian Games and Pro League lined up, India would hope to make a positive start to the year.

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