They had been there for a while before the call came to tell them that it was all even. Thierry Brinkman’s flick had been perfect, and so, instead of a free hit it was a goal, and with literally two seconds left of the first quarter of their FIH Men’s Hockey World Cup match, the Netherlands were level (1-1). India’s defence trudged back to the centre circle, before being ushered in actually for the break.
Brinkman had already celebrated and so the fireworks went off belatedly — the absurdity of a video referral robbing a moment of its immediacy. India coach Harendra Singh held his head in his hands in the dugout. A team talk change was in order. So was the frustration at a defence that went to sleep right at the death of a period of play. Again.
December 13 was Harendra’s 227th day in charge of the Indian hockey team. One can only hope it won’t be his last. He has spent the past eight months structuring, cajoling, dropping, picking and furiously rotating players — all the better to win the World Cup with. But, if Indian hockey’s vision is as genuine as its desire, then a result must not affect progression.
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Before the match began, the emcee asked the crowd to cheer loudly for the Indian team. Make the Netherlands feel like they are playing 12 Indians, he had proclaimed. Harendra insisted post match that India had played against 13 men (the Dutch XI and two referees). If you had not watched the match, and only listened to these rants and proclamations, your confusion about international hockey’s team structure would be justified.
In reality, by the end, the Netherlands were playing 10 Indians. Amit Rohidas’ 52nd minute yellow card caused this predicament. And, at the root of that inequality lay Harendra’s wrath.
The coach’s anger was undoubtedly about the result, but he masked it with an irrational rant about the refereeing.
First: his players were cheated out of a fair result (the World Cup itself apparently) not just this once, but even in the months past, at the Asian games in Jakarta. Two results that will undoubtedly be tied to his coaching future. A bronze at the Asian Games. Nothing from a home World Cup.
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Second: why wasn’t there consistency in the refereeing during the match? Why, he insisted (and then Manpreet Singh reiterated), were the Dutch not penalised for heavy fouls, but Indians were?
An absorbing match was reduced to this — a rant about refereeing inadequacy.
In all fairness, Harendra wasn’t alone in this. By the time Dutch coach Maximiliano Caladas took the press conference chair, he had calmed down. But the truth is in the immediate post-match adrenaline, and at the time, even he had denounced the refereeing, claiming that his side were robbed off a clear stroke in the dying minutes of the final quarter. So there you have it, two coaches finally agreeing about something, while also simultaneously disagreeing about the same thing. The sporting equivalent of Schrodinger's cat.
Best to listen to Billy Bakker then. The captain of the Netherlands team was magnanimous in his response and said quite easily the most sensible thing said by anyone all night.
“We had more possession, we applied more pressure, and we had the more chances. The best team won on the night. I believe a good team needs to adapt their game to all external factors… refereeing included,” he said.
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The game itself will probably never be remembered for all that it was built up to be. This was to be a clash of similarities, between two countries who played the same way (evolving through different systems). Two countries who put the same pressure on their coaches and players, where failure is never accepted. Two countries, who reject attritional physical hockey and instead embrace the technical brilliance that makes the game what it is.
All that this game was not. In the end it contained three goals. One off a rebound. One off a momentary lapse of concentration. And the third a drag flick.
Within the first thirty seconds, the Netherlands had misplaced, mishit and wrongly passed the ball out of play three times. Within the next thirty, India matched them, mistake for mistake. If you stuck a tongue out, you could taste the nervous energy in the stadium. Packed to the rafters, the Kalinga Stadium was baying for blood. And duly, the teams answered, shaken by the noise, but also roused by it. Passes were misplaced. Shots were mishit. Possession was squandered as frequently as it was won. But the intensity and the speed of play rose with every minute played.
With three minutes left in the first quarter, India had their first PC. Harmanpreet Singh’s dragflick was parried by Dutch ’keeper Pirmin Blaak, and, after a scuffle, the ball fell towards Akashdeep Singh. He accepted it with grace. First blood India. The Kalinga roared. One thing was made certain. The Dutch would have to dig deep.
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Not quite deep though, it turned out to be, because India almost gifted them their equaliser. With seconds left to play, an unneeded foul gave Mirco Pruijser a free hit near the 23-yard line. Before you could say ‘look-out-he-has-started’, Pruisjer hit a rasping shot into the circle and Brinkman did the rest.
The pace dropped in the second quarter, even if the quality of play scarcely improved. The Dutch were guilty of more mistakes. Inefficient off the ball, Overplaying when on it… Caladas’ list must have gone on.
If anything is to be taken as a positive from that quarter it is the brilliance of both defences in their own circle. India’s Harmanpreet and Varun Kumar displayed calm beyond their years. Each time the Dutch entered they were gently ushered away. At the heart of India’s attack, Akashdeep forced Blaak into another save, and from the rebound — albeit from an acute angle — Nilakanta Sharma shot wide.
And then came halftime. A swig of orange juice and the Oranje came out like the Dutch they were rumoured to be. The first half had yielded a single penalty corner which had gone India’s way. In the first 30 seconds of the second the Dutch doubled their own tally.
In conversations pre match, captain Manpreet spoke about how the Dutch were struggling with PCs and the team was aware of their inadequacies from them. In their crossover encounter against Canada, the Netherlands squandered eight in a row, Mink van der Weerden finally, scoring off the ninth. If there any fear of the law of averages catching up though, they were swatted away as the Dutch routine fell flat. Mink missed one. Then Mink missed two.
But the momentum had truly shifted. And India’s mythical twelfth man, the 15,000-strong spectators sensed it, and fell silent for long patches. All of India’s opponents had spoken about the crowd, and the pressure long silences heaped on the Indian players. True or not, the crowd had fallen silent. They had come to see good attacking hockey, preferably played by the Indians. And they weren’t getting it.
When the net bulged again — in the fourth quarter via Jeroen Hertzberger — it was ruled illegal. The ball had hit Bob de Voogd’s foot in the build up. More Dutch pressure followed. They had their fourth penalty corner in the 50th minute. You guessed right. Mink did miss it. But, Amit Rohidas had been over eager rushing out, and the referee duly pointed to a retake. India would also be reduced to a man less in their defence. And then Mink scored. And that alas, was that. Rohidas’ yellow came soon after and India even had a late penalty corner. But all to no avail. India were crushed. The Dutch gushed. A packed crowd was hushed.
There was more drama to follow. None of it was about the hockey played.
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