When the India men’s hockey team took the field for the game against Belgium, the stacks were loaded against them.
The home team were playing the world’s third best team, Olympic silver medallists and a side were unbeaten in the tournament so far. Truth to be told, not many expected them to beat the most in-form side in the world.
In the recent past, India had played Belgium four times and on three of those occasions, they had ended up on the losing side. The losses included the quarterfinal defeat at the 2016 Rio Olympics and 0-1 reverse in the semi-finals of the last edition of HWL Final in Raipur.
Their record was one aspect of the underdog status, the other was India’s own form in the tournament. After an impressive 1-1 draw against world champions Australia, Manpreet Singh’s men had failed to keep up their intensity in their next two games to lose against England (2-3) and Germany (0-2). If anything, after a bright start... India had gone downhill in a hurry.
But at the end of the day, India were through to yet another semi-finals of the HWL Final. They had beaten Belgium via penalty shootout after being tied 3-3 at full time. It was a triumph that had it’s basis in a fearless approach; one that saw them launch wave after wave of attack on the Belgian goal and also one that saw them keep the faith even when the Belgians launched a comeback of their own.
India knew that they had to play near-perfect hockey if they were to stay alive in this tournament. But coach Sjoerd Marijne knew that if the team played to their strength, they could beat any team in the world on any given day and that is what happened on Wednesday.
India came out all guns blazing against Belgium. They were quick off the blocks, playing the aggressive brand of hockey that was sorely missed in the matches against England and Germany. Their game was built on quick and short passes and no player held on to the ball for too long. They had a plan and they stuck to it throughout the game.
This was a different team India; an India who were not afraid of defeat. They were determined to give the packed audience a great exhibition of attacking hockey and forwards Akashdeep Singh, Gurjant Singh and SV Sunil delivered on that front.
Players step up
While Gurjant, Harmanpreet Singh and Rupinderpal Singh scored the goals, captain Manpreet Singh, Akashdeep and Sumit were brilliant in controlling the ball and making sure that the tempo of the team did not drop. At many times, Belgium were the ones who slowed down the game at times because India were running them ragged.
Tactically too, India were up to the mark. Belgium are known to be a great counter-attacking side but the hosts defended deep and made the European side rethink their plans.
SV Sunil did have two clear chances at goal, which he missed. However, those were perhaps the only mistakes committed by the 28-year-old during the entire evening. India’s back-line was simply outstanding with Harmanpreet, Rupinder, Amit Rohidas, Dipsan Tirkey and Birendra Larka making sure that Belgium had to fight every inch of the way.
India’s performance in the penalty corners was also good. They added variety to their approach, which resulted in Harmanpreet scoring his first goal of the tournament.
Change in mindset
In the end, it was the change in mindset that helped India win the match. But the challenge now is to maintain this frame of mind.
The players have to find a way to keep this spark alive as they approach the business end of the HWL Final. With the World Cup less than a year away, they need to make sure that this attitude isn’t a flash in the pan.
The team is young, passionate about hockey and is clearly driven. Their lack of experience against European teams seems to be working in their favour for now as they are not afraid to take the fight to the opponent. This, though, is just the beginning. That is