In a breathless match at the Birsa Munda International Hockey Stadium, India and England played out a thrilling 0-0 draw in Pool D of the 2023 FIH Hockey Men’s World Cup. In the end, as the cliche goes, neither team deserved to lose. At the same time, even a 1-0 win for either side wouldn’t have been seen as a harsh result.

But even in such a closely-fought match, India came off worse with Hardik Singh, arguably their best player in midfield so far, potentially out of the World Cup with a hamstring injury. Hardik went down clutching his hamstring in the fourth quarter after going on a typical slaloming run from the Indian half.

On Sunday, Hardik picked up from where he left off against Spain in the first match and was at the heart of many an Indian attack. He come close to give India the lead in the first minute itself before forcing player of the match Ollie Payne to make a crucial save in the second quarter.

In the third quarter, he went on one of his dazzling runs from the deep slicing through the English midfield drawing ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ from the packed stadium. In the end, England managed to scramble away with the ball.

Though there are fears that the injury could be tournament-ending for Hardik, chief coach Graham Reid hinted that the injury did not appear to be as bad as feared. For now, India face an anxious wait to see if their star player would recover in time for the knockouts.

Solid in defence, wasteful in attack

Both Reid and England coach Paul Revington praised their respective defensive units for their solid showing while lamenting their forwards’ under-par showing.

“I think the easy answer would be to just point fingers at the forwards of both teams. India and England, from a defensive point of view, put on a really good show for everyone. I had said pre-match the quality of defence would determine the outcome of this match. Ultimately that proved the case,” Revington said after the match.

While the experience Mandeep Singh only came alive in the second half, youngsters Abhishek and Sukhjeet Singh were largely peripheral figures. Akashdeep and Lalit Upadhyay, on the other hand, had a forgettable night. The pair looked out of sync from the rest of the team and were guilty of prematurely ending a couple of promising Indian attacks. Needless to say, India were unable to call upon Harmanpreet Singh’s talents from penalty corners as often as they would have liked.

“In the first quarter, we missed a few receives and that was much better later. A couple of times their choices of skills, their choices of shots, perhaps wasn’t good. It was (a problem) of execution of skills,” Reid said post-match.

Even as the forward line struggled to get going, India’s defence put in another solid display to come away with rare back-to-back clean sheets against teams of high calibre. They were tenacious without going overboard, as has been their wont in recent times, as well as rigidly sticking to their structure.

On the rare occasions they were caught off guard by England, India were quick to rectify their errors. Case in point being the 24-year-old Nilam Sanjeep Xess’ last-ditch diving block in the second quarter to steal the ball off Liam Ansell before the Englishman could take a shot at goal.

India’s penalty corner defence was even more impressive. Manpreet Singh and Amit Rohidas’ superb rushing ensured England did not score from their numerous set piece chances. The English nearly netted the winner in the final 15 seconds of the match but for Surender Kumar’s superb block at the post.

“It (clean sheet) is important. We gave away too many corners but in the actual goal itself, we didn’t give anyway. We have been leaking goals since the Tokyo Olympics and there are different reasons for it,” Reid said.

“At this level, you play fast-paced hockey, it happens. It is always concerning when you give away that many corners. I think a lot of England’s PCs were re-award which shows our PC-D is going well. We need to try and bring that in,” he added.

With Wales losing to Spain, India are through to the knockout stages but find themselves at the mercy of Spain for finishing top of the group. India, with a goal difference of +2, are second in the pool behind England who have a GD of +5. A Spain win over England coupled with a India beating Wales would see the hosts top the pool.

Even a draw for Max Caldas’ men over England would be a good result for India. Reid’s men would then need to beat Wales by four goals, a task which shouldn’t prove to be difficult.

“It’s quite simple really. We will have a simple mathematical equation before we go into the match. The objective will be fairly simple,” Reid said.

On a different day, India could have eked out a 1-0 win against England and put themselves a point away from progressing to the quarterfinals as pool winners. But as things stand, they might have to go about doing it the hard way.