After taking over as the head coach of the Indian men’s team, Harendra Singh was outrightly dismissive of queries about pressure. There was about two years to prepare for the Olympics. And less than six months to prepare for the Asian Games, the qualifying tournament for the Olympics. The team was looking uncertain after a fourth place finish at the Commonwealth Games. Which is why the doubts arose on whether he had enough time to make the required changes to the team, improve their results, set them up for the Asian Games.
These were some of his replies:-
“I don’t need time [to prepare the team].”
“We are looking to finish at the centre of the podium [at the Asian Games]. Only gold.”
“I’m willing to take the entire pressure and responsibility that comes with this role.”
These statements of conviction might, in future with the benefit of hindsight, sound a little presumptuous if he and his team don’t conquer the challenges that’s in front of them.
But they have made a great start to it, beating arch-rivals Pakistan 4-0 in the Champions Trophy opener.
Pakistan’s gritty display in the first half
For those who didn’t witness the match, specifically its first three quarters, the 4-0 scoreline might deceive you into believing that India totally dominated Pakistan.
India were on an eight-match unbeaten streak against the men in green and white. Since the beginning of the decade, they had lost to Pakistan only eight times out of the 32 occasions they met. So, India were the clear favourites heading into the match.
But Pakistan were a smidgen better than their rivals on many occasions in the first three quarters. They played with great relish, taking the ball away from the Indians and passing it among themselves, counterattacking quickly. They hardly allowed the Indians to construct an attack. For most of the first 10 minutes, India’s passing was aerial.
When Ramandeep Singh counterattacked after dispossessing the Pakistani midfielder and entered the opposition’s circle, Pakistan’s defenders – two of them – disallowed any room and averted the danger. The deadlock continued.
India failed to convert a penalty corner in the last few minutes of the first quarter, and the momentum seemed to be with Pakistan.
India soon earned another penalty corner but Harmanpreet took a while to collect the injection and set it up. The swift Pakistani defence easily smothered his strike.
All these instances of missed opportunity must have tested the team’s patience. Harmanpreet erred again in the midfield in the second quarter, losing the ball to the Pakistani attack. And, Sardar Singh ran in from the midfield to retrieve it from the Indian circle.
Even after the first goal was scored by Ramandeep Singh, Pakistan kept up the pressure on India. Their coach Roelant Oltmans during the half-time chat was seen asking his team to take the ball away from the Indians, which they did in the third quarter. But India didn’t give in, they weren’t hurried. The one-goal lead helped as well.
The manic last quarter
Despite the 1-0 lead, India was not dominating the play. It was still even. In fact, Pakistan had made more circle entries than the Indians did after almost three quarters of the game was done. Before the final quarter, Harendra told his boys to “pass-run-pass-run” to tire the Pakistani players on a sweltering day in Breda.
And with a spark of brilliance in the final quarter India took control of the match. Surendra Kumar snatched the ball from Pakistan’s attack in India’s circle and passed it to Simranjeet Singh, who collected the ball, took it away from Muhammad Irfan, and sent it to Dilpreet Singh lurking in Pakistan’s circle. The ball was between Pakistan’s goalie Imran Butt and another defender but Dilpreet, with one touch, took it away and slotted in India’s second goal. Cool as you like.
This goal, in the dying minutes of the game, unsettled Pakistan. And, they were forced to take off their goalkeeper to allow an extra man on the field so as to bolster the attack. The gamble backfired as India, boosted by the double-goal lead, found the ‘keeper-less Pakistani net twice more to start their campaign with style.
The result of the match could have been different had India let Pakistan disturb their rhythm during the first three quarters. Indeed, the last time these two sides met, at Gold Coast during the Commonwealth Games, India, then under Sjoerd Marijne, were guilty of giving into Pakistan’s pressure and let a 2-0 lead at half-time slip. That game ended 2-2, albeit with some help from the video referee in the dying seconds that helped Pakistan level the game.
But in Breda, with Harendra Singh at the helm, they foiled Pakistan’s best-laid plans and when they found an opening, they capitalised.
“I won’t make drastic changes in the structure of the team but definitely some minor adjustments are needed in the playing style,” Harendra had said before the team set off on their campaign. “Most importantly, we have to get scores on the board and defend well in the 25-yard shooting circle.”
Tougher tests await, but at the first time of asking, he and his men accomplished what they’d set out to.