Fifteen thousand people had filled the stands a good one hour before the push-back. But there might as well have been none. The thwack of the ball getting slapped around by Canadian sticks could be heard in the bowels of the Kalinga Stadium. The groans from the Indian dugout were audible even at the farthest end. That’s the thing about the Bhubaneswar crowd — they’ll be partisan one minute, placid the next. The moody, demanding lovers.
By keeping a tight leash on India, Canada were hoping to use the crowd in their favour. To their credit, things were panning out just as the North American lightweights wanted. Belgium’s 5-1 win over South Africa meant India simply needed a win to book a direct quarterfinal berth. But with just 15 minutes remaining, the possibility of playing the tricky crossover match with the third-placed team of Group D (most likely Pakistan) loomed large.
Canada had survived India’s early onslaught. The home team was quick off the blocks — pressing high, mounting relentless attacks from the flanks and earning three penalty corners in quick succession. Harmanpreet Singh, who has been off colour from set pieces, flicked one hard and low to goalkeeper Antoni Kindler’s right to give India the lead in the 12th minute.
Canada, though, did not panic. They knew as long as they kept the scoreline close, they had a chance of staging a comeback — that’s how they have managed results in two of the last three matches against India. And as minutes ticked by, it looked like their plan was once again working. Floris van Son finished off a wonderful move initiated by Gordon Johnston in the 39th minute, and that changed the complexion not just of this tie, but also the group.
India, as things stood, were placed second while Belgium were in pole position for a direct spot in the semis. To complicate matters for India, captain Manpreet Singh and defender Kothajit Singh — both playing despite having fever — hadn’t played the entire third quarter, as Canada continued to control the play. The crowd didn’t like what it was seeing and the silence in the stands was almost their way showing their disapproval.
Scott Tupper, the Canadian captain, had spent a good amount of his pre-match presser on Friday discussing the crowd’s behaviour patterns. “When India is playing well and they are flowing, the crowd gets flowing. But if we can keep it tight, the crowd does have a tendency to go quiet,” Tupper had said. “… (And) if we can get the crowd to quieten down, they might have to do a whole lot of thinking.”
India, in fact, were over-thinking. Without Manpreet, they weren’t able to hold on to possession and conceded a lot of balls in the midfield, putting the defence under constant pressure. When they flowed forward, it wasn’t with much thought — the plan, it seemed, was to reach the circle and hope something would come out of it.
The quarter-break couldn’t have come at a better time for India, though. Two minutes isn’t a lot of time to change things, but it was enough for coach Harendra Singh to address one basic flaw in the team’s attacks. “We weren’t following the structure,” striker Lalit Upadhyay admitted. “The coach just told us to play the way we had planned. We did that and found our rhythm.”
What essentially changed was India started to switch flanks while attacking, instead of being predictable and attacking only from the left as they have during this campaign. Kothajit, who returned in the fourth quarter, was lethal from the left but he would effortlessly change the direction of the attacks by playing it square through the midfield towards Sumit, who would make entries down the right.
That helped India create space in the midfield and unlock the defence, and as India ‘flowed’, the crowd too started to flow. And in Chinglensana Singh, Upadhyay and Amit Rohidas, India found three unlikely heroes who scored four goals in the space of 11 minutes.
Chinglensana slapped home the ball from top of the D in the 46th minute to give India the lead and calm down the nerves of an expectant crowd. A minute later, Upadhyay doubled India’s advantage from an identical position. Rohidas’ powerful hit along the ground from a penalty corner was so quick and accurate that it would have made Dilip Tirkey proud. The ‘grounders’, after all, were Tirkey’s trademark. Upadhyay completed Canada’s demolition in the 57th to hand India what seems like a comprehensive victory.
India will now play the winner of the crossover between Canada and Netherlands, assuming the latter will be Pool D’s second-placed side. The quarterfinal will be played on Thursday. And Harendra will hope the packed house is more partisan than placid.