It had to be something special if Indian hockey was trending on Twitter at 3 am. While most of the country was asleep early Saturday, the hockey team turned a new page. Ironically, it was at the very site where the team suffered its biggest humiliation in recent history.
At the Lee Valley hockey centre at London’s Olympic Park, the venue where they finished last among 12 teams at the 2012 Games, India came up with one of its most courageous performances to hold Australia goalless after regulation time in the final of the Champions Trophy — largely also due to goalkeeper P R Sreejesh’s heroics.
They were eventually defeated 3-1 after a dramatic penalty shoot-out. But the result was a rare occasion where the gold medal wasn’t lost; rather, the silver was deservedly won.
“We lost the match but we won millions of hearts. Be proud boys,” Sreejesh, who captained the side in absence of Sardar Singh, tweeted after the match along with a photograph of the players with their medals.
Let’s be clear, this does little to enhance the team’s chances at the Rio Olympics. That will be a completely different — and more difficult — chapter. But on its own, the significance of this achievement cannot be undermined.
After the Olympics and World Cup, Champions Trophy is the third biggest event in the international hockey calendar; a mini World Cup of sorts. India’s best performance in this tournament came 34 years ago, when they defeated Pakistan to win the bronze medal in the 1982 edition. Since then, it’s been a free-fall. For the longest time, the team did not even qualify for the elite tournament until the International Hockey Federation (FIH) tweaked its rules to accommodate India.
Of late, though, there’s a buzz about this team. Earlier this week, former England captain Gavin Featherstone called India the “most interesting team” in international hockey while Australia coach Graham Reid acknowledged before the final that “the Indians seem to be playing their best hockey for a while”. Last night, the team backed these claims.
There’s a running joke in the hockey fraternity on how Indian players start to shake in their shoes at the mere mention of the Australian team. Scorelines such as 5-0, 6-0 were common and left horrific mental scars on the players. It was expected that the final too would be a cakewalk for Australia. After all, they had won 4-2 in the round robin match a day earlier.
At a time when almost everyone had lost hope that India could give Australia a fight, let alone beat them, the players showed immense self-belief and aggression that lasted the course of the match, and gave the world champions a real scare.
This wasn’t a one-off performance. After years of decline, India’s graph has been steadily moving in the right direction in the last two years. Last December, the team stunned reigning Olympic silver medallists Holland in a modern-day classic to win the bronze medal at the Hockey World League. It was India’s first medal in an international tournament (excluding continental competitions) in more than three decades.
The reasons for this surge are varied but the most crucial aspect has been the stability in the playing group along with coach Roelant Oltmans’ astute planning. The no-nonsense Dutchman, also the high performance director of Indian hockey, has instilled discipline in the side that previous squads lacked.
“Proud of the boys today, and there is no reason for us to be disappointed. We will take a lot of heart and inspiration from this,” Oltmans said. “The thing to take heart from is how far we pushed the Australians, a team regarded the best in the game.”
In the middle of the night, from cricket team captain Virat Kohli to politicians and industrialists, several people expressed in 140 characters how proud they were of the team. This was, after all, a performance worthy of keeping the night vigil.