PR Sreejesh is walking along the sidelines, helmetless, holding a black sipper, four minutes before the finish of India’s World Cup quarter-final. His team’s trailing by a goal. Against Netherlands. India had never beaten them in World Cup. To amend this 47-year-old history, Sreejesh’s teammates had less than four minutes left.
Sreejesh is a self-professed stoic. His heart heals quicker. Defeats don’t linger within him. But that doesn’t mean they don’t hurt him. It does, badly. After a defeat via shootouts to Australia in the Champions Trophy final this year, he’d tweeted: “If you don’t fight for what you want... Don’t cry for what you lost. It comes to an end, champions trophy... and silver was not the colour we deserved.”
After India won the bronze medal in the Asian Games after losing to Malaysia in the Asian Games, he tweeted: “The pain from the semifinals will remain with us… But for now a medal around our neck will help us focus more, better way to finish the tournament.”
On Thursday night, he would have wanted to do whatever it takes to save his team from exiting the World Cup. But the best thing he could do was to exit the field so his team could play an extra attacker.
He looks up pensively as he walks along the sidelines. Then, looks down. As he passes the Indian penalty circle, he stares at Varun Kumar taking a free-hit. He, then, retires into the dugout. This could be the 30-year-old’s last World Cup match. Certainly his last World Cup at home.
One of India’s greatest goalkeepers walks away without even an applause.
Amit Rohidas is among the four rushers lined up with Sreejesh to thwart Netherlands’ 50th minute penalty corner. He’s from Odisha. He comes from a village where hockey is played with bamboo sticks, in muddy grounds, sometimes for goats, sometimes for chickens, eggs, coconuts. The people of his state appreciate hockey, adore him – they go berserk whenever his name’s announced. In front of those people, for them, he has to do his best to prevent the Netherlands from taking the lead. He’s ready. He’s eager. He’s perhaps anxious. He rushes a little too early and gets penalised for it. He’s been asked by the umpire to exit the 23-metre line. India are now down to three rushers and a goalkeeper. Mink van der Weerden’s drag-flick beats all of them. Rohidas goes silent. His teammates go silent. Thousands of his people go silent.
Four minutes later, he makes a shoddy tackle, his stick hits Mirco Pruijser’s arm and gets sent off by the umpire. His participation in the biggest match of his career, in front of his home crowd, comes to an end.
Manpreet Singh’s demeanour, off the field, is more boyish than manly. He has a cherubic face, is good-natured, chuckles often and smiles a lot. But on the field, especially in the last 10 minutes of the quarter-finals against the Netherlands, he runs like a predator in desperate pursuit of its prey. Running with a stick and a forward-bend limits speed. But Manpreet’s last-quarter dashes can evoke a sprinter’s awe. With six minutes to go, he takes off from the half-line, chasing Bob de Voogd, who’s well ahead of him, charging into the Indian circle with the ball. He leaves behind three Dutch midfielders, slides as he nears De Voogd, stretches out his stick to clear the ball away from him and in a split-second gets up to rush back to the midfield. He runs to attack, he runs to defend, he runs to the umpire to defend Rohidas when he’s shown a yellow card, he runs more when his team’s down to 10 men and a goal down. He doesn’t rest even after the final whistle. He’s after the umpire, arguing about a last-minute decision.
The fire-breathing intensity gives way to something more human a while after: he cries.
The average age of the Indian team is 23. Age, per se, mightn’t matter in sport. But experience accompanies age and it matters in a big tournament. Against the Netherlands, they lost a battle of fine margins.
And, the players must take heart from their fight. These things must have been told to them when they huddled for a debriefing session after the match. But after the talk, the Indians – the boys and the men (including coach Harendra Singh) – are in tears. Meters away, the Dutch pose for a post-win selfie.
Euphoria and agony juxtapose.
Indian coach Harendra Singh usually looks relaxed when he comes for press conferences. He would smile at the journalists he knows. He would, before the press conference begins, arrange the phones and recorders into a neat line. He would, during the interaction, amuse his audience with a wisecrack or two. He would answer a tough question with a joke or a perplexing analogy.
On Thursday, after the 1-2 loss against the Netherlands, the first question he faces is: “Coach, what went wrong?”
With his Dutch counterpart sitting in the same room, he replies, “I can only say that we can fight 11 versus 11 and not 13 versus 11. [The umpires] cannot rob the World Cup from this team.”
He’s aggrieved about a few decisions that didn’t go his team’s way. He launches into a tirade against poor umpiring. He says things that might get him into trouble. His anger isn’t masked by smiles, wisecracks or his obsession for order (the phones and recorders are placed a bit haphazardly).
“Sometimes in sports, things don’t go the way you want. That’s something you have to deal with,” says the winning captain Billy Bakker a while after.
Still, India managed to top their pool, remaining unbeaten, reaching the quarter-final. There’s aplenty to improve but this team, in the World Cup, justified its potential and showed that, with experience, it can evolve into a world beating side. Which is why the hockey-loving Kalinga crowd stood up and applauded it despite the defeat.