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Where do we even begin? For the sheer drama it provided, let’s begin at the end. Akash Chikte had barely been on the field for 15 minutes. For the large part of the night, he was ignored. His understudy, Suraj Karkera, was playing the match of his life and making a strong case for himself as PR Sreejesh’s back-up in goal. As the minutes ticked by, Chikte sat in the dugout trying to keep himself warm on a nippy night, wondering if the clock was ticking down on his career as well. India were leading Belgium by two goals when the fortunes changed.
Karkera let in two soft goals and for the closing stages, India coach Sjoerd Marijne brought in the relatively more experienced Chikte. Half an hour later, Chikte embraced the Dutch coach — both smiling and jumping, almost in tears. When they look back, this might be the evening when the careers of both these men actually took off with Marijne proving he can help India beat superior opponents and Chikte finally emerging out of Sreejesh’s shadow. For that, though, Chikte had to do a Sreejesh himself. On a frenetic night, India squandered a two-goal advantage, conceded a late third goal but showed strong character to prevail in a tie-breaker.
In the shootout, the home side once again let go a two-goal cushion. But the 25-year-old goalkeeper from Yavatmal made four breathtaking saves to ensure India prevailed 3-2 over the world’s number 3 side and record one of the biggest upsets of the tournament to enter the semifinals of the World League Final. A couple of days ago, this team did not look good enough to beat a school side. But on Wednesday, they were schooling some of the best hockey players this generation has seen. Tom Boon, Loic Luypaert, John-John Dohmen, Vincent Vanasch — all legends of the modern game — suffering a meltdown in front of the 9,000-odd in the stands.
“It’s difficult. the people are crazy. But we need to control the match now and impose our game.” Cedric Charlier knew the 11 blue shirts weren’t their only opponents on Wednesday. By the time the first quarter ended, his belief had just grown stronger. It was almost as if the crowd had taken matters into its own hands to ensure India improved its performance after an abysmal group stage — not by coaching, that bit was expertly taken care of by Marijne, but by making sure the Belgians never felt comfortable. The roar every time the ball touched an Indian stick was deafening, so was the silence every time Belgium had possession.
“It was spooky,” Belgium coach Shane McLeod said. “When there’s good action and a goal was scored, it’s deathly quiet. The players were confused.” They were facing problems communicating as well. Generally, the players depend on their teammates’ calls to stay in their zones, attack, or fall back. But amidst all the noise, they couldn’t hear what was being said. In front of thousands of partisan Indian fans, the 11 Belgians on the field felt isolated.
With the crowd playing its part, the onus was now on the players. They fed off the positive energy from the stands and almost magically, everything fell into place for Marijne’s men. They trapped well, passed well and ran forward with purpose. Belgium had scored most goals by playing crosses from the wings. But Marijne had positioned his defenders such that the supply was cut off. In the centre, Manpreet Singh and Rupinder Pal Singh were blocking everything in their vicinity and penalty corners — their main scoring area — were hard to come by. The Belgians were panicking. For once, India looked in control.
“We want to put pressure on their defence, snatch the ball and wait for counter.” At the half-time break, SV Sunil gave a rare insight into India’s strategy in a pitch-side interview. The pacy winger could’ve given India the lead in the very first minute. But his deflection off a Gurjant Singh cross went centimetres wide. But seconds into the third quarter, Sunil’s projection of an Indian attack materialised. Belgium made an uncharacteristic error in their half. India stole the ball and within seconds, it was played inside the Belgian ‘D’ and Gurjant tapped in past goalkeeper Vanasch.
India had scored just one field goal in this tournament before this match. And few had believed the Indian strikers had the calibre to beat Vanasch, who’s been nominated for the Goalkeeper of the Year award. They could hardly believe it in the stands. And the Belgians could not mask the look of shock on field. Four minutes later, it would get worse for the visitors. India won a penalty corner and Rupinder played a smart dummy — playing the ball between his legs towards Harmanpreet Singh, who flicked it past the goalkeeper. It was delirium. Then, they faced a dilemma — go defensive and protect the lead or play their natural, counter-attacking game? India chose the former, and were punished. In the 39th, Belgium won a corner and Luypaert pulled one back. India went into the quarter-break with a slender lead. That, though, was wiped off by Luypaert, who else, in the 46th minute from another penalty corner, with the ball sneaking through Karkera’s legs.
Marijne changed his goalkeeper after the two mistakes. But unlike previous matches, India did not cave in. Instead, they hit back immediately. They attacked from the restart and earned a penalty corner, which Rupinder converted and restored India’s lead. It was 3-2 to India but there were 14 nervy minutes left, a lifetime in hockey. With seven minutes left, a defensive lapse gifted Belgium the equaliser. Keusters’ shot — intended to be a cross — hit Harmanpreet and went past Chikte.
There was redemption for the duo in the shootouts, though, which went into sudden death. Harmanpreet went first, held his nerve and gave India the advantage. Arthur van Doren, one of Belgium’s veterans, stepped up to keep Belgium alive. He tried to wrong-foot Chikte, who stayed on his feet and did not commit himself to a tackle. Van Doren tried to force the ball through his legs, but Chikte padded it away. And just like that, within two days, the imposters had turned into poster boys.