It was a rather inconsequential group game between two sides who had already qualified for the semifinals. But it gave an impression of being a 60-minute ego massage for the Australian hockey team.
Before the details, the scenario: England, who had a superior goal difference over India, needed a win or a draw to top Group B while India needed all three points. Their common target — avoid Australia in the semifinal. The three-time defending champions had defeated all their opponents to top Pool A. In the last-four match on Friday, they’d face the second-placed side from the other group. Such is Australia’s might, that neither England nor India wanted to be that team.
So, the anxiety on both benches was understandable as the clock slowly ticked towards full time. England were better off among the two, leading 3-2. And India were desperate – with four minutes remaining, coach Sjoerd Marijne took the goalkeeper off and got 11 outfield players on the field in an attempt to put more pressure on England.
The move immediately paid dividends. India won a penalty corner in the 58th minute, but Rupinderpal Singh had hobbled off with an injury, leaving Varun Kumar and Harmanpreet Singh as the two drag-flicking options. Harmanpreet has scored a couple of important goals from set-pieces this week, so it was natural of England to think he’d be the one taking the flick at this crucial juncture.
Mounting a late charge
Instead, it was played towards Varun at the second battery. With the defence having to re-adjust their positions, Varun managed to find the gap and beat the goalkeeper to make it 3-3. Now, the pressure was on England. They just had to see off the remaining 92 seconds to top the group, but as India piled on the pressure, they were crumbling.
Within a minute of scoring an equalizer, India regained control of the ball in England’s territory. Captain Manpreet Singh played a long ball inside England’s ‘D’ and, as he so often does in such scenarios, Mandeep Singh deflected the ball in. It was an incredible turnaround, one that had echoes of the 2010 Commonwealth Games semifinal between the two teams, when India came back from 3-1 down to beat England in a tie-breaker.
While back then the fight was to play Australia, this time it was to avoid them. “Australia is world’s number 1 side and New Zealand is ranked 8th. So if you could choose, you would play No. 8,” Marijne said. “But we didn’t do this to only play New Zealand in the semifinal. We also wanted to improve our performance.”
Which, to their credit, they did. India have been frustratingly poor in Gold Coast. Against Pakistan, the performance was so poor that the coach refused to believe this was a team he had coached for the last five months. Wales, a team that’s not even an afterthought in world hockey, nearly gave a wasteful India a scare in the second game while Malaysia, as always, proved to be a tough nut to crack.
So the England match wasn’t just about avoiding Australia in the semifinal, but it was also about getting into the knockout round on the back of at least one good performance.
Captain makes amends
And the improvement came from top. Manpreet, whose rise as the team’s leader has been sudden, has had his captaincy credentials questioned in the last few days. He has been unable to control the flow of the game, or create enough moves, in his role as a centre-half. Unfortunately for him, he is being constantly compared to Sardar Singh, whom he has succeeded as captain and lynchpin of the side – at least among the outfield players.
The pressure has shown on his game and Manpreet has looked a shadow of himself so far. But he made amends on Wednesday. He scored India’s opening goal and set-up the winner, while doing a much better job in involving more players in the match and communicating better with them.
The effect of that was visible on other parts of the field as well. India maintained a fine structure for most periods, which wasn’t the case in the earlier matches, and that made it tough for England to break India down. “We were more disciplined today and showed good mentality, as the two goals in last two minutes prove,” Marijne said. “We were in control for most of the match. England scored goals, but we scored more.”
India’s only worry will be Rupinderpal’s fitness. While it was feared he had pulled his hamstring, a team official said the defender was suffering from camps. Rupinderpal, and India, have a day to recover from this draining encounter.
New Zealand won’t be as tough challenge as Australia. But Marijne knows a lot depends on the mood and form of his players. “New Zealand made it tough for us in the test series in January. But this isn’t about them. It’s about us.”