Bhubaneswar: Every day, at precisely 3 pm, the DJ at the Kalinga Stadium steps on the stage under one of the two giant screens and belts his first track of the day – the tournament anthem that hails the host nation more than it celebrates the sport, and the hockey cycle in the city chugs along. The ball boys file out of the players' arena in neat lines, the emcee begins her inquest with the crowd – "Are you ready?" being the most common query – and the World Cup continues in this time-space continuum.
Over a fortnight after the hosts opened their campaign against South Africa, there is a sense of finality in this banality. This could end tonight. This could also be a new dawn. Either way, coach Harendra Singh's distaste for the word notwithstanding, 'history' will be tossed around liberally when India play the Netherlands in their quarter-final on Thursday.
These are teams that play a similar style and with similar speeds, and herein lies the threat. There would be no surprises, as Dutch legend Stephan Veen said, and the route to glory, as iterated by Ajitpal Singh, is simple: Convert chances. For India, it is easier said than done.
On Tuesday, Indian forwards were seen honing their skills inside the circle. Their passing and pace were seen to be believed, but the knock-out punches didn't land that often. It does make for visual delight, but scorelines don't have a 'could have' column.
"It's simple, goal karoge to jeetoge (You'll win only if you score). In modern hockey, you can't hope of winning a match without scoring, that too against a side like the Netherlands," Ajitpal, India's only World Cup-winning captain, told Firstpost.
Hosts' campaign has been patchy at best and reckless at worst. India's tally of 12 goals in three matches – two wins and a draw – is impressive, but it could have been better had the trapping and final passing been on point. The unforced errors have flown freely, and the defence has been guilty of committing basic mistakes.
All is not well with the Netherlands either. They have lost defender Sander de Wijn to injury, and their penalty corner (PC) conversion has not been on expected lines. It has not gone unnoticed by the Indian camp, and Harendra said he won't take any chances against this "grey area" in the Dutch game.
"When we sit for analysis, we obviously look at the opponent's style too. PC conversion has been their grey area, but we can't outrightly ignore them. Their overall World Cup record from 1971 shows that they rely a lot on PCs, and even their current team is perfectly capable of scoring through short corners. They might click any day, and India are ready to meet that challenge. The best way to defend a PC is to not give a PC," he said.
Despite this blip, the Billy Bakker-led team has scored 18 times in the competition so far, and such has been their dominance that the 4-1 drubbing against Germany last week appears an accidental aberration of distant past.
The Dutch are known for their clockwork precision, and their clean, one-touch hockey and no-fuss finishing has been a joy to behold. Their attacks are sneaky, clean, and relentless, and they don't usually need a second opportunity to score.
By comparison, India's pace and fitness make them a genuine contender. Harendra has repeatedly said that there will be no backing down, and with his boys ready to give their all for 74 minutes, it would make for an entertaining viewing. India will have to persevere, and the defence, led by the experienced local boy Birendra Lakra, will be tasked to withstand the Dutch waves. The focus will also be on Manpreet Singh-led midfield to break the opposition's moves and initiate quick turnovers.
Head to head, Netherlands are runaway favourites. Both teams have met six times at the World Cup, with India losing on five occasions and drawing once.
Stats Courtesy: BG Joshi
In the 105 matches between the two teams, the Dutch hold a 48-33 advantage. However, their last five matches have been more even – two wins apiece and a draw at the Champions Trophy earlier this year, which was the last time the two sides met. On Indian soil, this will be their 28th meeting, with the results tied at seven wins apiece and 13 draws. Talk of picking favourites!
In scenarios such as these, the impact of the crowd can never be stated enough. After a two-day lull, the stadium is expected to serve a full house. The tickets are sold out, and the 15,000-strong Kalinga cauldron will test the Dutch nerves. Coach Maximiliano Caladas believes the pressure would be on India to deliver in front of local fans.
"Sometimes, you get energy from the crowd cheering against you. We have the experience of playing in front of large crowds and we can handle that pressure. The pressure will also be on India," he said.
Harendra, understandably, saw the silver lining. "Obviously, it will be an advantage to us. Crowd will be our 12th man and will impart an extra 5-10 percent energy to the boys to push them a little extra. Having said that, it's the players who will play the match. You can take a horse to water, but you can't make it drink," he said.
So here we are now, four days from the end of the World Cup and searching for a spot in the last four. The last time India played a World Cup semi-final was in the halcyon days of 1975, and the burden of history, despite denials, does sit pretty on Indian shoulders. History - and future - beckon, but the question, as posed daily by the emcee is, are you ready?
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Updated Date: Dec 13, 2018 13:09:44 IST