While pulling off their biggest heist at the Olympics, India made short work of Australia, quite literally.
Playing their biggest, most tense match ever, India resorted to a game of ‘mini hockey’, a tactical switch executed with breath-taking efficiency.
Sjoerd Marijne’s team started their quarterfinal by pressing high and unafraid to play long passes from the centre of the pitch to the attacking third, bypassing the midfield completely. But after drag-flicker Gurjit Kaur scored her first goal of the campaign to put India ahead in the 22nd minute, Australia got more aggressive, pushing India deep into their half in search of an equaliser.
That forced Marijne to deploy a different strategy at the start of the third quarter. Continuing with long passes to get some breathing space could have only led to easy interceptions, simple turnover of possession and more pressure on the defence.
So, the team turned to playing a ‘mini game’. Instead of going long, the players reduced the distance between themselves on the pitch and started playing shorter passes. It was simple: pass the ball, stop the ball, pass-stop, pass-stop…
The mini-hockey game requires strong fundamentals, and during this spell of play, India’s players showed how far they had come in terms of their technical abilities. They could play give-and-go hockey – receiving the ball on the run, and passing it in one quick motion – by stopping the ball cleanly and running patterns with two or three players playing this short game together, similar to creating triangles in football. They were receiving the ball close to their body, which made it difficult for the Australians to steal possession.
This also helped India to keep the ball for longer durations, thus breaking Australia’s rhythm and it cut out needless running, which was critical given the humid conditions in Tokyo. This was particularly effective on the left flank, where Udita, Salima Tete and Navjot Kaur combined to then feed forwards positioned on the inside, Rani Rampal and Lalremsiami.
This wasn’t the first time Marijne had adopted this tactic.
In the second leg of the Olympic qualifying playoff against the United States too, India played the short game to wrestle back control after being under pressure for most part of the first half. The problem, almost always, is in the execution. And that’s what happened at the Olympics as well.
The tears triggered the turnaround.
India were handed a rough schedule. In their opening three group stage matches, the team that finished at the bottom in the Rio Olympics was up against the podium finishers – silver medallists Netherlands first, then bronze winners Germany followed by champions Britain. India conceded 11 goals in those three games and it felt like a Rio repeat all over again.
The 4-1 loss to Rio gold medalists Britain, a team they’ve stolen points from before, hurt the players the most and left the team reeling. Marijne called it their ‘worst game’. He’s set a benchmark of 6 out of 10 for his players, the bare minimum consideration for what constitutes a good performance. In that match, he said, none of the players passed that test.
Rani, the captain, said the players wept inconsolably following the defeat. “(But) in the first match against The Netherlands, we played so well in the first two quarters. That gave us a lot of confidence that if we can play like that against the No. 1 team in the world, we can take on any team in the world. We were playing so well in that game, but still we lost,” she said.
After that defeat, the team got together, watched a movie to motivate themselves and dissected everything that hadn’t gone as planned. Marijne and Rani, who have spent several months and years dreaming about a scenario like this, were never in doubt about the team’s capability. The bigger issue, as far as the coach was concerned, was to make sure the team’s tempo and focus did not waver during a game.
The Dutchman calls it the ‘circles of attention’. Essentially, it is about staying in the present. “You are in Circle One when you are totally in the zone. The more you start thinking about other situations, be it an umpire’s problem or the result or your next opponent, you start drifting outside the first circle,” Marijne says. “Our mind is never concentrated on Circle One. But if you stay in the present, your mind remains calm, you can concentrate on your task and function at an optimum level.”
Monday was one of those days when all these factors magically came together, in a near-perfect performance. India was hungrier of the two teams and were bending more with their stick grazing the turf so that the ball didn’t touch their feet, resulting in fewer missed traps and fouls. It’s not often one sees a team keep a clean sheet in a fast-moving, high-scoring sport like hockey; rarer even to see that happen in an Olympic quarterfinal.
The fickle nature of sport means it’s impossible to say if India will be able to dish out the same level of performance against a physical side like Argentina, one of women’s hockey’s powerhouses.
But that for Marijne and his team would be drifting way outside the first circle of attention. “Let’s savour this win,” Marijne said. “Let’s live this moment.”
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