With just two minutes left on the clock, scores tied 1-1, restive home fans egging on the Dutch to go for a match-winner, the Indian bench on its feet, shouting, cheering on every save made by the Indian defenders, in a flashing, flurry of sticks, Jeroen Hertzberger found himself in the Indian circle, defenders still getting into position.
It is that moment in a hockey match when the defence goes into a comatose, slow-motion kind of moment. Even in the stands, fans held their breath, as they watched open-mouthed Hertzberger’s slap shot hitting the Indian captain Sreejesh and slipping under the pads to enter the Indian goal. The stands went crazy. The Indian bench deflated. India didn’t have a referral; a kind of opportunistic fate-destiny combination that could be invoked to stop what had just happened. But just as the scoreboard flashed 2-1, Kiwi umpire Gareth Greenfield asked for a referral.
Suddenly the Indian players came back to life, clinging, hoping that somehow the decision would be changed. The celebrating fans went mute. And when Greenfield pointed for a free hit, the Indian team like hungry sharks threw themselves back into the match. Like marauding warriors came the Dutch with three penalty corners in the last minute. And every time, the Indian defence pushed them back. And then India launched an aerial ball as the forwards went forward holding the ball, seconds ticking off furiously. The hooter went off to what some players described as ‘relief, happiness and excitement’ at the challenge of a Champions Trophy final.
The 1-1 scoreline was like a victory; a sweet victory for an Indian hockey team searching for a path to resurrection after the debacle at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games. It was a match that the Dutch feel they should have closed down earlier. But it was also a contest where India defended in numbers, closed gaps like plugging a leaking boat and then when the oars were lost, used their hands to row the boat to shore.
In a way, this last Pool match was a semi-final. India needed a draw to clamber to eight points, one ahead of the Dutch. Netherlands needed a win to hurdle over India. The draw was a victory for India; for the Dutch a defeat. “That’s what I told the boys,” says Harendra Singh. “We needed a point or three points. But a defeat wasn’t acceptable. It’s the last Champions Trophy and we will play the final, whatever is needed to do that.”
Earlier in the day, Olympic Champions Argentina beat World Champions Australia 3-2. Gonzalo Peillat, who was out of form so far in the tournament, finally finding that sweet spot with a thrilling hat-trick. India probably looked at that result for inspiration; also feeling that along with skills, determination and doggedness, and maybe luck, would play a part. It is in these intense matches that sometimes one-way traffic might suggest the domination of one team but it is also the fortitude, conviction and tenacity that make the defensive unit work as an offensive one.
Netherlands made the initial noises. In the last ten matches against India, the Dutch had won six times, lost three and drawn one. Numbers, stats, and world ranking (4) favoured them. India were already being spoken of as the team likely to face Argentina for 3rd/4th spot. But after the first wave of attacks were repelled, Sreejesh yet again anticipated and cut off the angles brilliantly, while the Indian defence rose in stature. Birendra Lakra, Surender Kumar, Varun Kumar and Jarmanpreet Singh probably gained international experience of the kind players would die for. After a jittery 1st quarter, in which India also wasted two penalty corners, saw Dilpreet and Mandeep muff chances, one would have wondered how long this bunch could handle a Dutch team riding on their fans’ emotions and also hell-bent on playing the final.
Three penalty corners came and went for the Dutch in the 2nd quarter. Thijs van Dam even found space but pulled the ball slightly sharply to the right giving Sreejesh extra space to deflect the flick away. If there was frustration in the Dutch ranks, they didn’t show it.
After the 1st two quarters, Indian coach Harendra says all he told the boys was not to give turn-overs and ensure that space was created to build counters. “I knew they would come at us and we should be prepared to go for a counter,” said Harendra. Mandeep had an opportunity and he shot straight at Dutch goalkeeper Sam van der Ven. Then came a SV Sunil sprint on the left flank after being fed by Surender. The ball was zipped to Mandeep who took three more touches, two more than necessary, and by the time he tried turning and taking a shot, four Dutch players were on him.
The pace was killing the team now. In and out swept the Dutch while India played two up front. The 4th quarter came. The Dutch would throw everything at the Indians. It was probably there that India realised the importance of keeping that channel open for a counter. Jarmanpreet was by now patrolling the flank and opening up the Dutch defence with a few runs of his own. One reverse hit of his slammed into Sam’s pads with a thud that could be heard across the stadium. Crouched, he defended and when finding space, he sprinted with the ball. In fact, it was his runs down the flank, late into the match that created doubt in the Dutch.
In the 47th minute came India’s 3rd PC. Harmanpreet Singh’s flick went low and straight to Sam. With the ball sitting between his legs, Mandeep pounced and scooped it into an empty Dutch goal. The stands went silent. They realised the importance of a 4th quarter goal that gave India the lead. Now the Dutch needed two goals. An equaliser would not be enough.
The Dutch counters continued. And so did the task of Lakra, Surender and Varun to tackle and spiriting away from the circle with the ball. Two counters from India were set up. The Indian midfield had the depth. Manpreet Singh and Sardar Singh both moved up. Gaps opened up for both the teams.
In the 55th minute, stretching the Indian defence over the striking circle, Thiery Brinkmann went into a corner as Sreejesh cut the angle. But out of nowhere the Dutch forward flicked and squeezed the ball between Sreejesh and the post. Adrenaline flowed for the hosts. Even then Chinglensana Singh and Mandeep had an opportunity each.
Till it finally came down to Hertzberger and the umpire’s referral. Twenty six circle entries for the Dutch tell the tale of a team dominating and drawing the match. Fifteen circle entries for India seem less and when you compare six Dutch PCs to India’s three, luck could be a factor ascribed to India somehow managing a draw. But look at the 3rd quarter and you see India having 70 percent possession. Holland had just one circle entry while India had none. But it was in that quarter that India brought the game back playing flank to flank, stretching the contest out and ensuring that ball possession and rotation remained with them.
“Going all out against the Dutch is foolish,” said Harendra. “Yes, you ride your luck playing defensively but the players knew what to do. If you focus and keep the errors out, you gain the ball. Not the opponent.”
In the Champions Trophy, this is India’s only 3rd draw in 14 matches against the Dutch with three wins and eight losses. But for the team the draw is a win and rightfully so. They get the right to a replay with the Australians after having lost the 2016 final in London.
Captain at the Champions Trophy, two years back, Sreejesh said, “It’s going to be an evening of recovery, a good massage and some tactical talk for tomorrow’s final.”
Australia will be hurting after the defeat against Argentina. And the World Champions would also want to send out a strong message before the World Cup later in the year. India, for all their flaws, have a rawness that none of the teams want to take for granted. It’s a challenge India would relish and with some tactical clarity might end up surprising themselves.
Updated Date: Jul 01, 2018 14:02:28 IST