There’s a duality to the Indian hockey team. One version is a team that falters in finishing, misses penalty corners, cedes control to the opposition, concedes last-minute goals, errs, falters, frustrates. The other team feasts on goals, bosses penalty corners, delivers knockout punches, excites, electrifies, elates.
The second team is, especially for a partisan of the Indian side, like a ride in Ferris wheel. It showed up, exclusively, in the preliminary stages of the Asian Games. It beat Indonesia 17-0, Hong Kong 26-0, eventual gold medallists Japan 8-0, South Korea 5-3, Sri Lanka 20-0. It’s like Godzilla: it wreaks havoc, but it’s fun.
But the thing is, this team doesn’t show up exclusively all the time. It comes with the first team, most often, and lets it play most of the game. Like it did against New Zealand [2-3] in this year’s Commonwealth Games semi-finals. Like it did against England [1-2] in the bronze medal match of the same tournament. Like it did against Malaysia [6-7 via penalty shootout] in the Asian Games semi-final.
Coach Harendra Singh tries to unleash the second team as often as possible. He managed to do so for the most part of the World Cup game against South Africa, for a while after the second quarter against Belgium and completely in the fourth quarter against Canada on Saturday.
Sense of panic
After Belgium thrashed South Africa 5-1 earlier on Saturday, India needed a win against Canada to qualify directly for the quarter-finals. And, Canada has been a bugbear for Indian hockey. Twice they have beaten India in World Cup, held them to a 2-2 draw in Rio Olympics and, edged them out 2-1 to finish fifth in the Hockey World League Semi-Final last year.
So, the disquiet of the silenced Kalinga Stadium crowd was palpable when Floris van Son scooped the ball past Indian ‘keeper PR Sreejesh in the 39th minute to equalise 1-1 for Canada after Harmanpreet Singh’s drag-flick had put the hosts ahead.
Canadian skipper Scott Tupper’s words on the eve of the match echoed somewhere. “If India is playing well and they are kind of flowing then, the crowd really gets going. But when things get hard and we can get into our game, the crowd has the tendency to go quiet.”
The crowd went quiet. The third quarter ended.
On cruise control
“Crowd is our 12th man. Many teams (opponents) can feel that pressure. We should take advantage of that. If you become defensive after conceding a goal, the crowd also goes silent. But if you keep attacking, the crowd remains energetic,” Harendra had said this before India’s match against Belgium.
What happened in the match against Canada was a testimony to that statement. As Akashdeep Singh passed the ball to Kothajit Singh in the first minute of the final quarter, Kalinga Stadium roared. It crescendoed as Kothajit’s drive from the left flank hit the pad of ‘keeper Antoni Kindler and rebounded to Chinglensana. When Chinglensana’s hit thudded the backboard, one couldn’t hear a thing.
The team that feasts on goals, bosses penalty corners, delivers knockout punches, excites, electrifies, elates was unleashed. It had, in the last quarter, two penalty corners, five shots on goals and 18 circle entries. It didn’t let the opposition breach their circle. It devoured three more goals in the same quarter: two field goals by Lalit Upadhyay and a penalty corner conversion by Amit Rohidas.
The Canadian coach Paul Bundy conceded after the match that his team went into a damage control mode after India scored their third goal. But the hosts were unstoppable. “You gotta give credit where it’s due. India punished us,” he said.
“If you’d offered us before the game to start the fourth quarter at 1-1, we’d have been happy with that. Unfortunately, we came out a little flab and they made us pay with three goals with quick succession,” said captain Tupper.
India have proved frequently, especially over the last year, that they have what it takes to beat the best teams in the world. Yet on a clutch phase of a crucial match, they become a team that falters in finishing, misses penalty corners, cedes control to the opposition, concedes last-minute goals, errs, falters and frustrates. For a while it seemed like that team had resurfaced on Saturday. Thankfully, it didn’t hang around for too long.