India coach Roelant Oltmans and his British counterpart Bobby Crutchley had contrasting views on most issues going into Thursday’s quarterfinal, but agreed on one basic point. Both did not know which Indian side will turn up for the quarterfinal — the one that was passive and lethargic against Argentina and Holland, or the one that harried Olympic champions Germany.
Inconsistency is a norm in Indian hockey rather than an exception. But on certain occasions, it also can be the team’s weapon. Britain players would vouch for it. It’s always tough to prepare for an opponent when you are not sure how they will play. You could sense that when Britain took the field. There was an edginess about them that was uncharacteristic of a team that had bossed through the group stage, even demolishing world champions Australia 5-2.
But in front of a rare packed house here, they looked unsure and cautious. So instead of taking the game to the opponent, something which they’ve done so well this tournament, they waited to see how India began. And that was their mistake.
Most teams would agree that the best strategy to deflate India is to put them under pressure early in the match. It keeps the crowd silent and also throws the Indian players off their game. By sitting back and being passive, Britain invited trouble and India were glad to oblige.
The hosts played with aura and authority that has become a rare sight these days, combining structured, patient build-ups with quick counterattacks that rattled the young British side.
The 2-1 win was a culmination of some brilliant individual efforts that made the team operate with clockwork precision. Up front, young Amir Khan — playing his first major tournament — repaid the faith put in him by Oltmans. Khan has been one of the finest players on domestic circuit but had to remain patient to get his breakthrough. An injury to Lalit Upadhyay opened the door for him and he has risen to the occasion.
He was quick to press the British players in their defensive third, and worked tirelessly throughout. And his intelligent play inside the ‘D’ helped India earn a penalty corner in the 19th minute, which was converted by VR Raghunath. The drag-flicker so far had a mediocre tournament, filled with errors, poor execution from penalty corners and picking up unnecessary cards. But his low, powerful flick was too much for Britain goalkeeper James Bailey to keep out.
Up by a goal and the crowd firmly behind them, India turned on the style. They looked a transformed side, playing with flair that was missing so far. Birendra Lakra proved his growing importance within the team by producing another remarkable performance, which earned him the man of the match award. Lakra held the defence well and initiated several attacks, ensuring the transition was seamless. For a change, Lakra was well-supported by the forwards, who were lacklustre and guilty of several miss-traps in the previous matches. They controlled the ball better, played aggressively and with courage, lurking dangerously near the British ‘D’.
Two moves highlighted the confidence with which they played. Midway through the third quarter, Sardar Singh, who for once was outshone by his teammates, played a delightful through ball that sliced open the Britain defence. The intended recipient was Ramandeep Singh, who perhaps leads the ‘mistraps’ chart. But his first touch this time was perfect, taking the ball away from the defender and unleashing a fierce shot which unfortunately hit the cross bar and into safety.
Kothajit’s brilliant pass
Minutes later, India would conjure up an even better move. Kothajit Singh controlled a high ball in India’s half. Surrounded by British players and with just one Indian player up field, he looked out of options to pass the ball. But he showed incredible vision to scoop the ball over the defenders. It was a wonderfully controlled lob, falling into space and releasing Talwinder Singh one-on-one with the goalkeeper. Talwinder, another player guilty of poor trapping, went around the goalkeeper and finished the move with a brilliant reverse hit from an acute angle.
It was a hard-fought win, let’s not forget that. India sat back after going up 2-0, prepared to defend deep and soak up the pressure. Britain threw the proverbial kitchen-sink at India in the final quarter, pressing high and passing the ball with a lot more purpose. They were rewarded in the 52th minute when Simon Mantell pulled one back from a penalty corner. Britain played the final five minutes with an extra outfield player by removing their goalkeeper. But India, somehow, survived the tense moments and held on for the win.
In hindsight, Crutchley would have hoped his team began the game the way they started it. Oltmans, meanwhile, will hope the same India turns up for the semifinal on Saturday, where they will take on Belgium.