Updated: August 2, 2021 9:52:31 am
So, that feels different: India in an Olympic semifinal.
Pinch yourself. Just a week ago, the same team lost 7-1 to Australia in the group stage game. Now, on Tuesday, they will take on world champions Belgium for a place in the Olympic final.
One would assume a lot would have changed within the team after such a morale-sapping defeat. But in truth, very little did. The team, coach Graham Reid said, did not panic even though it was India’s biggest defeat in terms of scoreline at the Games. “The thing is if you actually go and have a look at the game, we weren’t that bad,” India coach Graham Reid said. “The result was bad but the numbers didn’t show a 7-1 game.”
The statistics showed, according to Reid, that India was ahead in most areas. The problem, however, was that the team allowed the Australians to control the narrative from the midfield and gave them plenty of space in that area.
To Reid, that was the only minor arrangement that needed to be made. Reid, however, said he only wanted to get one point across to his players: you weren’t that bad. Since that 7-1 defeat, India have not lost a single match, finished second in a group that also comprised Olympic champions Argentina and are now in the semifinals.
This outcome, for many, might not be surprising. Jinx-breaking and historic, sure. But within the hockey circles, India had gradually started to earn respect. In Sreejesh, the team had a world-class goalkeeper who had single-handedly bailed them out on several occasions. Defender Harmanpreet Singh is considered to be one of the fiercest drag-flickers in the world. Manpreet Singh has gained in reputation as a leader in the last year or so. As for Reid, he is a man on a mission after failing to lead Australia into the last four of the Rio Olympics.
This was the reason Belgium coach Shane McLeod had, in fact, predicted on Sunday morning that one of the semifinals would be between his team and India – and he turned out to be right. Even former Netherlands coach Paul van Ass, in an interview to hockey.nl a month or so ago, had listed India as an outside favourite for the title in Tokyo.
Whether India can progress further will depend not on the skill – that they possess in abundance – but it will be in their ability to respond under pressure, as they did against Britain.
Sunday’s quarterfinal was a match flush with drama that compensated for serial imperfections of both teams.
Britain might not induce the same level of fear among Indians but like so many other countries in the last four decades, they too have not missed a chance to stab them in the heart. Especially at the Olympics, where, before tonight, India had not beaten them since 1988. Britain had won all four matches between the two teams from 1988 to 2000.
The match was a classic clash of styles. Britain ran a lot, were cynical at times and kept their shape. India were fluid, played with flair, weren’t organised always but they had their moments of brilliance which dragged the team beyond the finish line.
It was widely expected to be a game that would be settled by drag-flicks, given both teams’ prowess in the department, but India showed refreshing willingness to move forward even in the last couple of minutes, when the immediate instinct of the players was to sit back and protect the lead.
It meant India, so far largely a one-trick pony with Harmanpreet and Varun Kumar scoring with their cannonball-like drag-flicks, suddenly surprised Britain with free-flowing attacking plays and scored three field goals. “To win this competition you have to have corners going well and field goals being scored,” Reid said.
The win was also significant in terms of overcoming the mental barrier. India have considered too many late goals and have lost in the quarterfinals of a major tournament more than once. Sunday, Reid felt, could mark the beginning of something new. “At the end of the day, what was lacking is just that experience of big games,” he said. “They have the belief. You have to learn to win and then you have to repeat it.”
That was his message to the players immediately after the hooter was sounded. The team huddled in the centre of the pitch and Reid had only reminder: “Enjoy the next couple of hours. But our job has only just started.”