When the Indian team cancelled their training session a day before the Belgium quarter-finals, a lot of eyebrows were raised. The media questioned questioned the move, forgetting that the team and the coach probably didn’t want any extra strain or pressure. Scoring three goals in three matches was stressful enough. India languishing at bottom of the pool after being dismantled by Germany in a possession vs counter-attacking game was worrying for the ticket counters.
Belgium had scored 11 goals; five against Spain and three against Holland. Who in their right mind could predict an Indian win? Optimistic fans would probably have hoped for a close loss, and for Indian to avoid a massacre.
Yet the fans walked in. Slowly all the stands filled up, and by the time the National Anthem was played, the fans had their fingers’ crossed and cheered India on with more hope than belief.
India missed an early chance when SV Sunil, who always gives the impression of out-running the ball, failed to control a Gurjant Singh cross into the net. The roar from the fans subsided fast. The start was inauspicious; something similar had happened in the game against Germany.
However, somewhere between the missed training session and the game on the pitch, beliefs, playing system, strategy and the approach had turned for India. This was a blueprint not many had visualised. And even if they had, they hadn’t dared to dream it. Over the years, a false dawn has been predicted so many times that it no longer excited anyone. Pessimism was the law by which Indian hockey thrived. Despite the goalless first quarter, there were signs that India would miss and Belgium would score against the run of play.
But noticeably, the errors from Indian players reduced, their trapping was better and they dominated empty spaces. Belgium were, at times, confined to the middle of the pitch with no recourse to the Indian striking circle.
Belgium doesn’t use too many long passes. They have a tendency to build up but India put a stop to that completely. The fluency with which Belgium dominated the first two quarters wasn’t there in the second half.
As minutes ticked away, Belgium became ragged. Then, they used the flanks to run into the circle; Varun Kumar, Sumit, Harmanpreet Singh, Dipsan Tirkey and Rupinder Pal Singh used their skills to avoid the ball on their feet. Once during the match, Birendra Lakra virtually sat on the turf, with his stick absolutely flat on the ground, refusing to yield space.
More than anything else, India had stepped up mentally. And the fans sensed it too. There was concern in certain quarters about supporters’ ire if India failed to put in a substantial performance or win the match. But the Kalinga Stadium became become a parochial mad house as the match took a crazy roller-coaster ride through the four quarters.
If India’s compact and tight display surprised Belgium, the supporters threw them off balance. The fans at the Kalinga are different from the polite classes that sit in Antwerp or Boom watching hockey. Generous applause rings around those stadiums. Sitting in those stands is akin to watching theatre where guttural sounds are frowned upon. Bhubaneswar fans are not used to niceties. Frustration had been boiling over in the last two matches which India had lost. So when Gurjant and Harmanpreet scored to give India 2-0 lead, fans found their voice.
Suddenly, a match which was supposed to be Belgium’s, was being reversed. India had failed with a penalty corner. And when Rupinder beautifully flicked the ball behind him to Harmanpreet, the indirect conversion seemed magical. Did the India team wait till the quarter-finals to switch on a few hidden tactics? Fans cared little as the decibel levels rose. The roar grew in intensity as India stretched the Belgian defence.
Akashdeep Singh, Sunil and Mandeep Singh sprinted in and out of various positions upfront, driving the Belgian defence nuts. It wasn’t just about scoring goals. The match had taken a different direction. Mandeep once ran around the outer striking circle forcing the Belgian defender to shoulder him over the touch line and India were awarded a penalty corner.
Former Indian coach and commentator Cedric D’Souza was adamant that India were playing well and that they would hit their groove by the quarter-finals. Most were skeptical. But against Belgium, both D’Souza and Marijne were proven right. “We will play well in the quarter-finals,” Marijne had said after the 0-2 defeat to Germany.
Mandeep’s off the ball running drove the Belgian defence batty. When India rotated the ball in the midfield, it stretched Belgium’s resources to constantly try to keep a man on the players. It was reminiscent of the 1994 World Cup campaign in Sydney when D’Souza used a lone forward Edward Aranha to harass defences. The match against Holland, which India lost 2-4, was of a similar nature. The only difference was that with Floris Bovelander and Taco Hajo van den Honer in their ranks, the Dutch penalty corner battery was far more superior to India. India relied on counter-attacks but then World Champions Holland were just too powerful.
So when it was 2-2, it seemed history would repeat itself. It looked like Belgium, who had won seven out of their last eight matches against India, would prevail. And in the third quarter, for around four minutes, they made concentrated attacks. But India held them off, playing a little further in the striking circle and restricting them to the 25-yard line. The shots towards Suraj Karkera’s goal were reduced.
In knockout matches, sustained intensity and excellence is rare. Both teams committed errors. And when Rupinder converted off a penalty corner, it seemed like India would go through. However, they were up against a Belgian side that models itself around perseverance. Winning regularly at the top level has also given them the confidence to constantly come back from the brink.
It was at this stage that Marijne took a gamble. Normally, India change their goalkeepers at the half. But Karkera was allowed to continue. Maybe, the coach was thinking about a possible shootout when a fresher goalkeeper would be needed. In hindsight, this turned out to be a masterstroke.
Akash Chikte came on in . India were playing well and defending solidly. There were seven minutes left on the clock when a harmless cross from the right flank didn’t find a Belgian stick or Chikte’s pads but the ball zipped into the Indian goal after a thick deflection of Harmanpreet’s stick to make it 3-3.
A few cardiac arrests in the stands wouldn’t have been out of the ordinary. Like waves, the fans rose and sat. This match was an emotional roller-coaster. Knowing India’s penchant for letting in late goals, there was relief when the clock ran out. In the 2014 World Cup at the Hague, Belgium had scored the match-winner with only 15 seconds left on the clock. Not this time though.
The match went to a shootout and Chikte’s presence would have been reassuring for the Indian team. In the 2016 Kuantan Asian Champions Trophy, he was the goalkeeper in the final against Pakistan. This was his moment to take India into the last-four.
Even the shootout saw a 2-2 scoreline after five strokes. It was down to sudden death and Harmanpreet scored. Chikte came out of his charge but didn’t commit. Arthur van Doren took a few seconds for Chikte to square up and Doren ended up pushing it through the gaps in the pads. But Chikte didn’t relent. With no space, the ball bounced off the pads and Belgium had been ousted.
After spending so long under Sreejesh’ shadow, Chikte finally had a moment he could call his own. Marijne was happy and he said the team played to their plan. The counters had worked for India and the coach had got his desired result.
Right from the time Marijne has taken over, he has spoken about ball speed and the need to bolster the attack with surprise. Those sentiments were echoed by Sunil. “It was about catching them with surprise,” said Sunil. “The important part was also to play to the plan and it worked.”
The Indian coach spoke about energy, marking and the creation of penalty corners. The blueprint was introduced during the Asia Cup, if not in its entirety, but there was a plan in place which would culminate in what the coach seeks from these players. Even in Dhaka, India’s Dutch coach was consistent in saying that Indian players have the pace to unsettle defences and also control situations. “The quality is there. I have to understand and harness it.”
Sunil’s speed and forward movement leaves defences ragged. His perplexing pace, with highly exaggerated movements, confuses the opponent. From his lateral movement to his runs down the flanks with mistimed and straight forward crosses, Sunil is the force that defences back away from. Every player now plays a role which is defined in team meetings and there is a plan in place.
Marijne believes India, despite their quality, need to understand the plans in depth. After the 1-1 draw against South Korea in the Asian Championships, where India scored in the last minute, it was the equaliser that made Marijne happy. “In fact, scoring in the last minute is a huge boost,” he had said. “It means that they were in the match plan. And followed it till the last second.”
In a world where nothing can be taken for granted — a touch might be wrong, a flick might fly wide, a pass made to a wrong stick — Marijne’s philosophy to control the things you can control is working. Indian hockey has lived in a world of speculation but at the moment the future seems to be a fascinating prospect.