There’s such geniality when India host the Netherlands these days, it’s easy to forget these are competitive matches.
On Thursday, the two chief coaches – India’s Graham Reid, who was Max Caldas’ assistant at the Netherlands – caught up for drinks. This bonhomie goes beyond the coaching staff. On the eve the Pro League match, as the Netherlands exited the ground after training and India checked in, the sound guys actually played – believe it or not – the Bollywood classic from the 1970s, ‘tere mere milan ki yeh raina’.
These are two sides that are style-soulmates. For both, playing fast, entertaining hockey is sacrosanct; coached by tacticians who know no other way of making their teams play. There’s little India and the Netherlands don’t know about each other. Their matches follow a pattern: India enthrall, Dutch are efficient; India make errors, Dutch remain clinical; and in the end, the men in Orange win.
On Saturday, though, there was a bit of newness; the kind of stuff that spices up an old, flagging relationship. And it took India, who won 5-2, all of 13 seconds to give a glimpse of what they might be like in the Reid era, however long that lasts.
Gurjant Singh, who has been sparingly used by the previous coaches, stole the ball from a Dutch player seconds after push back, passed it forward without looking up towards Mandeep Singh, who controlled the ball, turned and played a cross that cut open the defence. In the four seconds that Mandeep took to complete that motion, Gurjant sprinted half-way across the field to meet his teammates cross on the far post, and he tapped it into the goal.
It was slick and speedy. But India have, in the past, flattered way too much to ultimately deceive. The question was, could they play like this for the remaining 60 minutes? The Netherlands would find that out in the rudest way possible, barring the second quarter, India were pretty much relentless in the way they pressed and passed.
Reid isn’t the kind of coach who likes protecting a lead. But instead of simply going all out against a dangerous Dutch team, his message to the players was to keep it ‘simple’ – “nice, simple, pass-pass-pass.”
Simple, of course, isn’t how Indians like to play their hockey. Showboating is their game. This, however, was one of those rare moments when they listened to their coach and executed the game-plan. And it worked.
You’d be hard-pressed to think of the last time India passed the ball so much – hockey’s stats system isn’t as sophisticated as most other sports, else it would have made for an interesting data to analyse. It helped that the passes, most of them crisp and short, found their intended targets and the trapping was surprisingly error-free.
The style of play meant India’s speed when attacking, or counter-attacking, repeatedly surprised Netherlands. That’s how they scored three of their five goals.
India had briefly reverted to their old ways in the second quarter, which gave Netherlands an opportunity to fight back and level the scores going into half time. Reid had to remind the team of their game-plan during the break, and the players reacted.
In the 34th minute, a long, aerial clearance by a Dutch defender was intercepted by India at the half-line. Two passes later, the ball landed at Mandeep’s stick, who slammed home a hit to restore India’s lead. A couple of minutes later, Manpreet Singh, who created most of India’s plays, started things from the middle of the pitch by passing it to Rupinderpal on the left. The drag-flicker played it along the line towards Harmanpreet Singh. He dodged past a couple of defenders to enter the ‘D’, and squared it towards Lalit Upadhyay, who deflected it past the goalkeeper.
It would have been typical India to concede the two-goal advantage once again, and allow Netherlands a way back into the match. But this time, they did not. Instead, they kept the ball, passing it among themselves and waited patiently to find a gap in the Dutch defence. It was — in Reid’s words — nice, simple, pass-pass-pass.
Instead of running with the ball themselves and tiring themselves out, they let the ball travel, making Netherlands chase it. “It was mental after 10 seconds,” captain Billy Bakker said, gulping down water. “They passed so much… we ran so much.”
India weren’t the genial hosts they usually are; there was a previously-unseen element of ruthlessness in them. But Saturday seemed one of those days when they woke up on right side of the bed. Sunday, as we’ve seen way too many times in the past, could be a completely different story.
Today’s game: India vs Netherlands, 5pm, Live on Star Sports 1
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