“I’ve read about coaches who see the two as a single match, but I don’t,” Indian women's hockey team coach Sjoerd Marijne had said before the Olympic qualifier game against USA, “You can see the result on Friday what you have to adjust and what works best for us.” On the basis of what we have seen: No adjustments. This is perfect. More of this please.
Maybe the best way to grasp what happened at the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar on November 1, and what it meant, is to back it up and watch it again, right from the start. Right from the time the Indian captain, Rani Rampal, holder of 226 caps, appearing in her 227th, took in home applause for only the second time in her career. Play it on fast forward through the first quarter, when there were nerves, more for the home team that had never played at home, didn’t know how it felt, had no understanding of how games unravelled when you could hear and understand what the cheers in the stands meant.
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Watch all of this and you can actually pinpoint the moment their heartbeats leveled out. It’s the same minute when the crowds in the stadium actually increased. The stadium, in 15 minutes, filled out to capacity. The clock shows 16:47 on the board — it, in fact, shows 13:53, because every quarter of a hockey game is a time bomb not a marathon — and Lalremsiami, the youngest member of this team, the teenager, decided enough is enough.
The USA women's team — perhaps the only USA sports team with a tacky kit but no sponsors — had dominated the play, created all the chances, even forced the saves. The crowd were restless. Indian possession was greeted with cheers, which did more to unsettle than to encourage their women.
Lalremsiami, though, is different. She had braved through the FIH World Series Finals in Japan, despite losing her father midway through it. Imagine playing with that kind of pain. Putting that stone on your heart. Crowds are fickle. They mean nothing.
She cut past two of the American players near the 25 and crossed into the circle. The cross was inch perfect, and the USA were outthought. Sharmila Devi was in, with only a goalkeeper to deflect past. She didn’t, but in that moment Marijne’s team got their mission plans. Let them keep the ball. Their gameplay was based on possession, on domination and a confidence of breaking the home team down. They were committing too many forward. It was a matter of margins when on the counter.
It took a while, and then it took some more. It took right till the end of the quarter. Fast forward there. It's a penalty corner, India’s second of the game. The first had yielded a counter that immediately led to a USA PC.
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To the injection then. Press play, and then pause. This one was different. It was imperfect. Sushila Chanu doesn’t get the trap in perfectly, she shifted, the ball bobs up and the moment is gone. In a photograph it will look terrible. Which is why it is necessary now to complete the video. Sushila improvised.
All athletes always talk of visualising the game, the moment, the race, the pass. Do they ever visualise the mistake? Do they ever wonder what happens next? Do they visualise a mistake and an improvement on a mistake? If they do, this is how it is done.
Sushila brought the offending ball down. And went wide, the perfect decision — because going wide is always the correct thing to do — to Rani, who drove it to the base of the circle, to Neha Goyal. Goyal didn’t start this game. She wasn’t one of those who walked on, between the anaars with all that pressure. She would come on later. She’s had an opportunity to acclimatise. And so she does. Again. She drew two of the USA defenders towards her, turned her back, and squared it across goal.
The goal was gaping. The GOAL was gaping. The goal was GAPING. Salima Tete slotted it in.
It was all there in that extraordinary moment, when the Indian women's team suddenly started believing. They realised they are home. This is their home. The stadium erupts. Apparently if you score a goal, they like it.
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So they scored five more. The last time they met the USA it ended in a draw. The time before, they lost 0-4. None of that this time. 5-1. Each goal more fun and more confident that one previous. They had never played in front of a filled home stadium before. Now they know how it feels like. The USA didn’t know what noise feels like either. Now they do.
“It is difficult for teams to get used to a system like this, playing back-to-back deciders. It’s like the first half is played on Friday and the 2nd on Saturday,” USA’s coach Janneke Schopman said before the game. A perfect counter to her Indian counterpart. The coach who thinks of it as a single match.
Both could yet be right. 5-1 at the end of the first half.
Saturday then. Marijne’s second match and Schopman’s second half. Everyone will be better adjusted. How much better though? There are four goals to get back.
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