The bleachers were packed, probably filled over capacity, and India were playing some mesmerizing hockey too. But for large parts, you couldn’t have guessed it. At the quarter-break, half-time and even post-match, the players raved about the atmosphere. But that claim was exclusively for the cameras. In reality, it felt rather strange. The ‘thwack’ echoed every time the ball was slapped across the turf. On a few occasions, you could even hear the players talk.
India were playing their opening match of the tournament. But it wasn’t the way India usually play. And the crowd was puzzled. Just like the Australians were. Used to seeing Indian players make darting runs, cutting past defenders and showboat their skills, the fans looked hypnotized by the speed at which they passed the ball around.
Since he has taken over in September, India coach Sjoerd Marijne has been trying to get his players to ditch the old habit of carrying the ball for a more one touch, give-and-go style of play. By the end of the 60 minutes of playing measured hockey against Australia, which ended in a 1-1 draw, Marijne seemed content. “Not with the result, which is disappointing, but I am happy with the way we played,” the Dutchman said. A draw against the world champions in the tournament-opener is a result India would take any day, especially since they had managed it just once since 2014. But here, the feeling was bitter-sweet. For the number of chances they created, India would be kicking themselves for not getting three points from it.
However, given the format of this tournament – where all teams will qualify for the knockout stage – result wasn’t the end-all. That gave players the freedom to try in a match what they’ve been practicing at the camp for the last one month.
So they resisted the urge to take on Australian players one-on-one. Instead, the moment a player received the ball, he would look up and release it in 2-3 seconds maximum. The fans sat silently, trying to focus on the ball that changed sticks at breakneck speed. Sometimes, when they over-did the passing, they gasped in frustration. On other occasions, they were in awe.
After a first quarter where India dominated play, there was such a spell early in the second. What looked like a routine pass from edge of the ‘D’ by Harmanpreet Singh turned into a dangerous attack within seconds. Manpreet Singh, playing his 200th international match, glanced Harmanpreet’s pass towards Chinglensana Singh on the left. The captain’s deft touch livened up the crowd.
Chinglensana took a touch and played it back to Manpreet, who looked up, spotted Varun Kumar free on the right flank and played a beautiful through ball. Varun quickly released it towards Mandeep Singh. In just six touches, and 12 seconds, the ball travelled from India’s ‘D’ to Australia’s.
Unfortunately for the home team, Mandeep’s poor control foiled the move. “It’s a difficult way to play so the discipline has to be high. They did really well today. It looks easy, but it isn’t,” Marijne said. India were still the same pacy side on the attack. But it wasn’t them doing the sprints. For a change, they were moving the ball sharply. The swiftness of the move made Australia cautious. “We could sense that they were not prepared for us to play like this. Their defence was finding it tough to deal with our passing,” forward SV Sunil said.
In the 20th minute, they were rewarded. Manpreet picked up a loose ball on the top of India’s ‘D’, took it away from an Australian forward and, from the right, he played a diagonal ball towards Sunil.
The winger needed just a touch to bring the ball under control and played it forward towards Mandeep. India’s junior World Cup hero ran behind the veteran Mark Knowles and beat goalkeeper Tyler Lovell with a reverse flick.
That goal brought the proverbial roof down. The crowd came to life but it also woke up the giants from their slumber. As India celebrated, the Australians huddled near the half-line and Knowles had just one message. “I had to tell the boys to focus. We were making too many errors and not able to read the play. We needed to focus,” the Australian captain said after the match.
The players responded immediately. As they have done numerous times in the past, India switched off after scoring. Birendra Lakra conceded a soft penalty corner a minute later and goalkeeper Akash Chikte allowed an even softer goal from the consequent drag-flick, taken by Jeremy Hayward.
Going by the past trends, one expected Australia to run away with the match after scoring the equalizer. But India were solid defensively, allowing Australia just two shots at goal from open play.
Rupinderpal Singh, returning from a long injury layoff, made crucial interceptions while Dipsan Tirkey once against proved why he is rated so highly in this set-up. India, on the other hand, missed several chances — Akashdeep Singh the guilty party on most occasions while the penalty corner specialists, too, had an off night.
India will worry about these two aspects as they go into Saturday’s game against England. But on an eerily silent night here, the hosts have made a strong opening