In the 31st minute of the India-USA encounter at the Lee Valley Hockey and Tennis Centre in London, Sjoerd Marijne winked cheekily and smiled – perhaps for the first time in the game – at his support staff.

The coach of Indian women’s hockey team isn’t a man of excessive emotions. Bellowing from the sidelines is not his style. His visage rarely betrays his thoughts. Even after a loss to the lower-ranked Irish team in the previous game, when the survival in the tournament was under severe threat, Marijne greeted his players with positive words and said with conviction that his team hasn’t lost confidence.

But just before half-time against United States on Sunday, when the camera zoomed in on him, one could sense the turmoil building within him. Margaux Paolino’s goal between the legs of the goalkeeper Savita in the 11th minute deteriorated the Indian hopes and flustered the usually unflappable Dutchman. Only a few minutes earlier, his captain and the lynchpin of the team, Rani Rampal, was getting her left ankle heavily strapped in the dugout after twisting it.

A minute after the start of the third quarter came India’s moment of reckoning – their retreat from the brink of elimination, their first goal in over 120 minutes of hockey played across three matches. Rani, receiving the penalty corner, paused for a smidgen of a second and struck a flat shot that the American goalie Jackie Briggs couldn’t block despite a desperate dive towards her right.

India were alive in the competition again. Because of his tranquil persona, one didn’t see the Indian coach roaring or pumping his fists. Only a wink and a smile. But it was definitely a wink of relief.

Far from their best

The India that played in the first two-and-a-half matches of the tournament were far from the one that beat England in the league stage of the Commonwealth Games, that made Australia sweat in the semi-finals, that won the Asian Champions Trophy silver medal.

In the first match, after an early lead, they let England come back easily and level the scores. After Ireland scored first in the second, they grew timid – shoulders down, balls missed, and only occasional interceptions.

Against Ireland, they lost despite having three times more shots on goal than their opponents, having almost triple the number of circle entries and four more penalty corners. The finishing was a problem. Even Rani frittered away a chance that wasn’t tough for a player of her caliber.

Against the USA, India didn’t even make enough penetrations till the second half. After the first few minutes, the Indian defenders were busy keeping the Americans at bay till the end of the second quarter. That the US women didn’t double their lead in the second quarter is a testimony to the Indian defence, which has been one of the few positive points for the women in blue hitherto.

A sign of resurgence

The team’s skill, which has seen a drastic improvement over the past few years, was still undiminished. But put against teams that largely play a physical game with vociferous aggression, they have been a tad timorous.

After Rani’s 31st minute equaliser, India – with their hopes brightened and spirits high – stepped up their game and countered the American aggression. The balls were beginning to be intercepted even before the opposition could enter the Indian circle and counter attacks were built. Even if they didn’t score the winner, they came close to doing it on multiple occasions. The aggression returned. There was a sign of a mini resurgence.

India need to be aggressive as they enter the knockout stage of the tournament. They have kept themselves afloat so far without a single win, but ahead of their first knockout match against Italy (ranked seven places lower), they need to be ruthless to progress to the quarter-finals – a stage where they haven’t reached in the last four decades.

India face Italy at 22.30 IST in the playoffs on Tuesday. A win for Rani and Co would setup another meeting with the Irish in the quarter-finals.