Showing terrific pace with fierce runs down both flanks, a hugely competitive Dutch side used athleticism more than pure skills to beat back the challenge of a dominant Indian team 3-1 to top Pool B. India came into this match playing vibrant hockey scoring 14 goals and conceding just two in reply. Holland had scored ten, and let in just one. It was a top class match-up or as the announcer said before the match – “It will be a cracker of a game.”
The last time both sides had played each other, The Netherlands had won 2-1 in Rio. This was predicted to be no different. If Indian fans had any apprehensions, it was about how much the Sardar Singh episode had affected the National team. Sardar, the former captain had been taken for questioning by the Leeds Police on Monday. So when his name was announced in the Indian team, there was palpable relief.
The Dutch began like a bunch of sprinters. They played fast, went for fast breaks and within a minute had the Indian side collectively in their own half. India didn’t have many answers; the Dutch bull-dozed through the midfield, cutting away like a scythe.
In the 2nd minute, they had the lead. It was a terrible error from Sardar Singh who had the ball on the top of the Indian striking circle but allowed it to be snatched by Thierry Brinkman who put it past Akash Chikte. Had the pressure of the off-the-field issues caught up with Sardar was the question here? Indian captain Manpreet Singh, after the match, answered: “Sardar is an iconic player and anybody could have committed the error. Even the other goals came off errors.”
But India was a goal down and pressure was mounting. The Netherlands sensed it beautifully. They stretched the flanks, cut through the middle and sprinted past the Indian midfield and defence like thoroughbreds. India were falling back and defending.
Jonas de Geus had an opportunity and Chikte saved. Then it was the turn of Dutch captain, Billy Bakker, who turned and flicked but Chikte blocked. The goalkeeper was keeping India alive in the 1st quarter. The pressure was relentless. And the Indian defence broke again in the 13th minute. The Netherlands had a penalty corner and Sander Baart sent the ball home; it was a perfect flick, low and under the falling Chikte. India was now gasping for breath.
The Netherlands pushed on using the flanks time and again to stretch the Indian defence before cutting the ball back in. No extraordinary ball play by the Dutch but pure and simple athleticism of an Olympian level. They ran fast, traded passes like relay runners and kept the Indian defence guessing. As the hooter sounded for the 1st quarter, a confused and battered Indian side came off; Roelant Oltmans explaining on his board the deficiencies and the way forward in the 2nd quarter.
The Dutch began at the same pace. But the Indians were clearing to the side where the right halves were sending in through balls on the lines. It was keeping the Dutch away from cutting through the middle. Yet they didn’t relent, coming forward like a swarm of bees. The third goal came off a break with a passing pattern that would make Magnus Carlsen green with envy. Sander Wijn raced through the midfield, tapped to Billy Bakker who went past two before giving it to Mirco Pruijser whose last tap beat Chikte all ends up. At 3-0, it seemed, India was in for a whacking.
But slowly India wrestled control of the midfield and then they pulled balls to the flanks and stretched the Dutch. Sunil almost went to the extreme right before hitting in a perfect cross to an unmarked Akashdeep who pulled out a brilliant piece of skill by tapping the ball between his own legs to beat the Dutch goalkeeper Pirmin Blaak. It was hockey’s version of a Lionel Messi move.
At the break, India came off 1-3 down but had kept the door slightly ajar.
Coach Oltmans, meanwhile, changed Chikte in goal to bring Vikas Dahiya into the match. And the 3rd quarter started with a yellow card for Sardar and India was down to ten men. The Netherlands had a 4th penalty corner but couldn’t convert.
Off a breakaway move, India did have Mandeep Singh racing away but took time to swivel and try a reverse shot which was saved by the defence. The third quarter was turning out to be India’s best. They had a few breaks and the Dutch for the first time gave away gaps in the midfield which Pardeep Mor and Chinglensana exploited. For the Indian midfield it was a poor day as Manpreet Singh, Sardar, Satbir all played below par. Only Harjeet in patches during the 3rd and 4th quarter displayed some verve that gave a bit of aggression and hope to a misfiring Indian side. On the sidelines, Oltmans kept hitting the fence in frustration.
The 4th quarter was even with India getting at least three chances to score. Harmanpreet Singh flicked powerfully but the Dutch goalkeeper Sam van der Ven, replacing Blaak, brought off two superb saves. It was a story of poor finishing for both the sides. The Dutch had their 5th penalty corner but an indirect conversion didn’t work.
In a match that decided the Pool topper, India had sparred with Holland and like a battered boxer came back strongly in the later rounds. Indian coach Oltmans, said, “The first two quarters went their way and we couldn’t find our way in. But I am happy with the way the boys recovered and we could have got one more goal.”
In a match-up between the World No 4 and No 6, Dutch player, Mink Weerden said the pace gave the domination to Holland in the first two quarters and that the team went in with that thinking. “We knew we had to subdue India in the first quarter itself,” Mink said. And then interestingly pointed out that Holland was going towards athleticism and not a game based on skills. The Dutch team is loaded with six footers, as if they had been pulled out of their national basketball team. Jonas Geus, Floris Wortelboer, Mirco Pruijser, Bob Voogd and their captain Billy Bakker towered over the Indians. Chinglensana in a one-to-one duel with Bakker stood way below his shoulders. Mink laughed at the ‘basketball suggestion’ and then said “by that logic, I will be out of the team.” Mink is 5 feet ten inches.
With a day’s rest, India now has time to focus on their next opponents – Malaysia or China. “I don’t think the opponents matter,” said Oltmans. “The match needs to be won. And that is what we will focus on.”