The mood of the suspended Sardar Singh and that of the Indian hockey team on the pitch seemed to follow a common path. Sardar, dressed in a tracksuit with a white-and-blue snapback perched on his head, and watching the game from the top of the grandstand, had sulked his way through the first half at the Glasgow National Hockey Centre.
The 11 men on the pitch too seemed to be in a foul mood, frequently berating each other and struggling to keep their heads up. For the first half hour, the semi-final between India and New Zealand had been firmly parked in the Kiwis’ favour.
Simon Child had scored the opener in just the second minute and 16 minutes later, Nick Haig added the second. Both goals had come through defensive lapses, with the defenders being caught out of position. Till the 28th minute, New Zealand ran the Indians ragged, fluidly moving the ball around and always finding an extra man to play the ball too.
Sardar had gone through a gamut of emotions too. The second goal had seen him plant a violent kick at the waste bin to his left, while a couple of close chances right after had seem him pump his fists in frustration. The first 28 minutes had followed the script, one written four years ago. That night, England had scored two early goals and India’s defence had been in all sorts of trouble. But there had been a memorable fight-back then. Could we see another on a windy, rainy, typical Glaswegian afternoon?
It was Rupinder Singh once again who helped India find their footing. A defensive colossus for India all through the game, the towering centre-back halved the deficit, converting a penalty stroke in the 28th minute. With the goal, the mood seemed to have changed dramatically. It was almost a replica from four years back.
In the second half, the Indians began brightly. Playing the ball more confidently and regularly hassling the New Zealand players whenever they lost the ball. SV Sunil, the fleet-footed forward playing right-out, seemed to have found his radar and rediscovered his legs. The 25-year-old Coorgi was a constant thorn in the Kiwis’ flesh, speeding down the right-flank, leaving the defenders to chase shadows.
Sardar too was in his elements. He hollered out instructions and encouragement, at times being more vocal than coach Terry Walsh, who preferred to whisper instructions to the players before they took the field.
The suspended captain’s enthusiasm and the clarity of the task before them seemed to have rejuvenated the Indians. The Kiwi defence was regularly split open, Danish Mujtaba and Manpreet Singh spraying the ball around expertly from the centre of the field. But it still looked as if India were missing that moment of magic which would provide the final push.
Just seven minutes into the second half, that moment of brilliance came. Manpreet Singh, who had put in an impressive shift, drove the ball into the striking circle. The on-rushing Ramandeep Singh looked to have over-run the ball, but twirled his wrists at the last moment and with the ball almost behind him, guided it into the goal. With parity restored, India went on a rampage. Both flanks saw active action, with Gurbaj and Sunil combining down the right channel while Dharamvir Singh and Gurvinder Chandi got down to work on the other side.
It was Chandi who began the move that culminated in the all-important third goal. Receiving an accurate push from Rupinder, Chandi went down the centre before catching the covering Hayward off-balance. In that moment, as the defender struggled to right himself, Chandi had seen Akashdeep Singh move into position on the edge of the striking circle. A couple of steps later, the ball had been released.
The short fizzing pass was expertly trapped by Akashdeep, his first touch bringing him into just that little bit of space needed to wind up for the reverse hit. New Zealand goalkeeper Devon Manchester had no chance as the ball rocketed into the net, drawing a huge roar from Sardar, now up on the railing of the grandstand.
But it was here that the real challenge began. With almost 28 minutes to the hooter, India had to defend as if their lives depended on it. Late goals have been India’s problem recently, but there was to be no last-minute heartbreak. Rupinder marshalled his defence expertly, never allowing a Kiwi player more than a yard of space. Even though India lost Manpreet Singh to a yellow card with nine minutes to play, the rest were up to the task. Kothajit Singh intercepted a pass bang in the middle of the striking circle, raising his stick just enough to throw off the on-rushing attacker before hacking the ball away.
Rupinder and Birendra Lakra intervened in the space of two minutes, to scuttle what would have been clear chances on goal.
Coach Terry Walsh tried hard to be understated, but as the final hooter rang out, he jumped over the dug-out to administer a strangle-hug to M Kaushik, the team manager.
India take on Australia in a repeat of the 2010 final. Having lost 2-4 to the Aussies in the group stages, Walsh says his side know fully well what they are up against.