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So, they’ve hoodwinked us again. A day ago, eulogies were being written for Indian hockey. Kookaburra mainstay Simon Orchard felt “the Indian men are getting worse at hockey.” Compared to what was being whispered in hockey circles in India and around the world, Orchard’s was, perhaps, one of the less harsh criticisms of a team that looked a misfit in this tournament for the world’s best.
The passionate Odias were angry. There was heightened cop presence at the Kalinga Stadium for Wednesday’s quarterfinal against Belgium. They feared things might get out of hand if India lost again. So in plainclothes, grey tracksuits and crisp khaki uniforms, the policemen frisked every spectator and manned every gallery. Eventually, things did go out of hand. But not in the way they were afraid of.
Against all expectations, India beat Belgium. It was a vintage performance. But in a manner typical of India, watching the team scrape through via a penalty shootout was also an emotional roller-coaster. This Indian team is a lot of things – skillful, strong-willed, fearless being a few – but one trait that is sewn into the fabric of this team is its unpredictability.
It’s their identity and comes with a lot of baggage. But to be honest, there’s also some charm in it, just like it is with the Pakistani cricket team. In the world of well-drilled, robotic teams, the flawed Indians bring the human element.
Sure, on most days they make you whinge. But then, there’ll be a day like Wednesday where stumbling and falling, they will somehow cross the finish line. Those days are rare. But they make experts look silly. Pundits in India, Holland and Belgium did not give Marijne’s men the faintest of chance. You really did not have to be an expert to predict that. Belgium were the pre-tournament favourites, a reputation they had enhanced by going unbeaten in the group stage. But this was more about India being bad than the Belgians being good. Perhaps, the only bunch that was treating India with some seriousness were the Belgians themselves. A day before the quarterfinal, Arthur van Doren, the man with the final miss for Belgium in the penalty shootout, said “most dangerous sides, like India, look like they’re playing bad. But dangerous they are.”
Especially when they are pushed into a corner. Manpreet Singh, the captain, said “team ko kar dikhana tha” (team wanted to prove a point). They did, although they were far from clinical. The defence made some glaring errors and the passing still isn’t up to scratch. Still, they somehow snuck into the semifinals, where they will meet Argentina on Friday.
It’s always a bit tricky to judge India on the basis of their previous match because they can be so different on any given day. The crowd here knows it too well. Three years ago, they had defeated favourites Belgium in the quarterfinals of the Champions Trophy but then lost to an even more unpredictable Pakistan in the semifinals. That night, it was India’s inability to control emotions that was their undoing. As long as they do not repeat that, the home side will fancy its chances. India are unlikely to get intimidated by Argentina’s ‘Olympic champions’ tag. For some reason, the South Americans do not evoke the same trepidation among the Indian players like Australia or Germany.
Argentina, surprisingly, haven’t hit the ground running either. Like India, they had a mediocre group stage before beating England 3-2 in the quarterfinals on Thursday to cement their place in the last four. But Carlos Retegui’s side has not played like Olympic champions.
Their man-marking has been poor and the defenders have looked uncomfortable when opponents have pressed high. This has resulted in them conceding the second-most goals in the group stage (8). India, who are quick on counters, will fancy beating the defenders with their one-on-one skills, especially after the success they achieved against Belgium.
Going forward, too, Argentina have struggled. They have mainly attacked through the centre but have not created many chances. Their drag-flick specialist Gonzalo Peillat is the only aerial ball specialist in the side but they have used that strategy sparingly and when they have, it hasn’t been effective.
In his debrief, Marijne would’ve pointed these out to his players. He can’t say if the players will implement the game-plan but he hopes they remain “calm”.
On the eve of the semifinal, there’s just one question on everyone’s minds: which Indian side would turn up on Friday — the one which could barely string together two passes, as was the case against Germany, or the one that stunned tournament favourites Belgium?
For a team that’s so schizophrenic in nature, it is impossible to tell.