Decoding the India women's hockey team -- Rani, Gurjit and an improved defence

The Indian women's hockey team pose for a picture after practice, ahead of their Olympic qualifiers against U.S. in Bhubaneswar in 2019. Hockey India

Ahead of the Tokyo Olympics, we take a look at the exciting Indian women's hockey team - whom to look out for, what kind of form they are in, and just what we can expect from them come the main event.

Who's the best player?

She's been in the national team for over a decade, so it's easy to forget that Rani Rampal is still only 26. There are few as hardworking within this unit, and few as freakishly talented in world hockey. The equation is a pretty simple one -- for India to have a good outing in Tokyo, Rani has to be at her best all the way through.

Who's the X-factor in the team?

The one big change in the Indian team since their last Olympics appearance in Rio (this will only be their third Olympics since 1980) has been the emergence of drag-flicker Gurjit Kaur, which makes them a bigger goalscoring threat than before. Another player to watch will be 19-year-old forward Sharmila Devi, fast-tracked into the senior team a couple of years ago by head coach Sjoerd Marijne, thanks to her blistering pace. Together with Rani and Lalremsiami, they form an attacking triumvirate that could give the best defences a lot to think about.

What is India's style of play?

For long, India have carried the reputation of being conservative, timid even, against higher-ranked opponents, but capable of bossing matches against teams beneath them in the pecking order. At World No.10, only South Africa (16) are lower-ranked than them among the six teams in Group A this time. Over the last couple of years, India's defensive discipline has been better in big games, and that is something Marijne will bank on in a difficult group.

What are the team's strengths?

India's individual skills are among the best in the world, and in recent years, they have been able to bring in some good defensive structure in addition to that. They don't ship a lot of goals, which makes them dangerous off counters, where they can depend on the speed of Siami and Sharmila, and the skills of Rani and Vandana Katariya.

Where can they get hurt?

Their greatest strength is also their greatest weakness. In big matches, an overdependence on Rani can make it easy for opponents to close out supply to the captain and restrict India's offensive movements. In simple terms, India has to find outlets for scoring besides just their captain. Even if the midfielders venture forward and keep creating penalty corners, it should bring Gurjit into the equation.

Who are India's toughest opponents?

In Germany (3) and Netherlands (1), India have two of the top medal contenders in their group. The Dutch are the most dominant force in women's hockey -- they have successive titles in the last two World Cups, the World League, the Pro League and also had two golds at the Olympics before returning with a silver last time around. The worse news? Great Britain, the team that beat them to the gold in Rio, are also in India's group.

The good news is that the battle for the fourth quarterfinalist's spot will largely be between India, Ireland and South Africa. Ireland are just one place above India in the rankings, and the two teams played out two close matches at the 2018 World Cup in London, with Ireland beating India in the quarters only via a shootout, en route the silver medal.

Are India in form?

There's just not been enough match play to gauge that. India anyway started with a disadvantage last year, without a place in the Pro League. They have had a tour of Argentina earlier this year, but due to COVID-19 restrictions, the Olympic qualifiers nearly two years ago remains the last serious competitive hockey they have played. At home, they pulverised U.S. in the first of two games, before a nervy second game saw Rani settle the tie on aggregate in India's favour. Similar inconsistency against predominantly higher-ranked opponents could be an issue.

Can the team win a medal?

A medal may be a bridge too far, given the lack of competitive games over the past 17 months, especially since India's most likely knockout opponents would be second-ranked Argentina or fourth-ranked Australia. However, it would be considered a mini-triumph if India can make their way out of their group. And then a podium finish would just be two freakishly good match days away.