In their first match of this World Cup, against South Africa, India were comparable to a sprinter winning a race by a cosy margin notwithstanding a few stumbles. Harendra Singh’s boys, for a 10-minute phase in the third quarter, cruised. Three penalty corners weren’t converted. Two goals did come off them, but off hectic rebounds of drag-flicks. Yet, they managed to devastate South Africa 5-0 on Wednesday night, evoking a roar of cheer from an unapologetically prejudiced crowd at the Kalinga Hockey Stadium in Bhubaneswar.

On Sunday, however, begins a hitch-ridden climb for India – against world no 3 Belgium – wherein they’ll have to be quick, cautious and consistent. If they manage to surmount Belgium, India will enhance their chance of topping Pool C and qualifying for the quarter-final. A slip against them might imperil their ascent of the World Cup’s summit.

For, a defeat will damn them to the ‘crossover stage’, wherein they’d have to beat a team from Pool D (Germany/the Netherlands/Pakistan/Malaysia) to get to the knockouts. This dangerous detour, they’d disfavour.

“I don’t think [India] were challenged [in the last game] to be honest,” said Belgium’s coach, Shane McLeod, on the eve of the contest against the hosts. The New Zealander wasn’t belittling the South Africans. For, the scoreline of the India-South Africa contest’s an indication of the sides’ respective positions in world hockey: India, a former powerhouse trying to reclaim their lost supremacy by attempting an incredibly tough, but hopeful, World Cup win at home and South Africa – struggling to keep their team afloat due to scarce funding – who are happy to be in the World Cup.

A different structure

“South Africa play a different structure than us. India just got goals and South Africa sort of allowed them to control the game,” said McLeod.

A review of India’s five goals in their previous match – except the fourth one scored by Lalit Upadhyay off a perfect deflection from the goalmouth – will corroborate McLeod’s statement. The two penalty corners were scored off rebounds. The other two goals – completed well by Akashdeep Singh and Simranjeet Singh – were allowed to be constructed by the South Africans.

From the Belgians, who play a different game, with a more efficient structure, India cannot expect a benevolent allowance of space and time they got from South Africa. The rapidity of Belgians will be hard to keep up with, their defensive solidity will hamper the Indian attack.

Frontman Mandeep Singh, however, was optimistic.

“The game has got faster, but we will always get space,” he said. “The difference will be that we have to think through over moves. In the first quarter, we will have to judge where are we getting gaps from, and of course, during the break, the coach will also tell us the areas to exploit. We will accordingly mount our charge in the next quarter.”

Belgium, Harendra said, play “vertical hockey” – wherein the passes are seldom parallel. Against such a side, which relentlessly trespasses the opposition circle, the Indian defence need to be doubly vigilant than they were against the South Africans.

Despite the two-spot difference in ranking (Belgium’s third and India, fifth), the sides, one would reckon, are on a par with each other. Factor the vociferous faithfuls, who’ll fill the Kalinga Hockey Stadium on Sunday evening, in and the hosts’ chances appear a teensy bit higher.

Their coach, Harendra, said as much: “The crowd is our 12th man. Many teams (opponents) can feel that pressure. We should take advantage of that.”

His counterpart, too, counted the crowd as a determiner of Sunday’s game. “The crowd is a tough one. The players can’t communicate with each other [because of their noise],” he said.

But being the cynosure of Odisha – the State that’s being called the “cradle of Indian hockey” – Harendra’s boys, surely, must feel some tension?

The coach admitted the presence of pressure but added, “We have to enjoy the pressure. If you have to go (straight) to the quarter-finals, then Sunday’s match is [like] a pre-quarterfinal.”

Today’s schedule:

Pool C - Canada vs South Africa at 17:00 hrs IST

Pool C - India vs Belgium at 19:00 hrs IST