Defender Harmanpreet Singh fell to his knees, bowed in respect and could not hold back his tears. Young guns Dilpreet Singh and Gurjant Singh threw their arms around each other in jubilation. In the dugout, full back Rupinder Pal Singh hugged assistant coach Gregg Clark and the two engaged in plenty of back-patting. Coach Graham Reid reached out to his wards, who had just created history at the Oi Hockey Stadium at the Tokyo Olympic Games.
Sunday was no ordinary day for Indian hockey.
After 41 years of hope, despair and heartbreaks, India took a step closer to that elusive Olympic medal that has become as rare as the appearance of Halley’s Comet. In the high-stakes quarter-final, India withstood late pressure from Great Britain to register a 3-1 win to put themselves in medal contention.
But before we engage in predictions and possibilities on what could happen in the days to come, let us spare a moment and savour the win that could well turn out to be the defining moment in Indian hockey for years to come.
A Moment of Change and Belief
As Manpreet Singh’s boys stepped on the field on Sunday, they knew that there was more to this match than a mere win or a loss. For a country devoid of Olympic glory or even top-four finishes at the Olympic or the world stage that is considered synonymous to being a powerhouse in international hockey, it was going to be their moment of reckoning and belief.
For years now, World No. 3 India have been playing good, consistent hockey but faltered at the crucial knockout stages. Pressure scenarios did them in. They were mostly considered the after-rans in quest for ‘equal status’ when compared to the mighty Australians or the European giants Germany, Holland and Belgium. The pattern repeated itself far too many times — 2018 World Cup at home (loss in quarters), 2018 Commonwealth Games (lost the bronze medal playoff), 2018 Asian Games (lost in semis), 2016 Rio Games (lost in quarters), raising questions over their big-match temperament and quality to match the top nations.
On Sunday though, India broke a huge mental barrier, besides also asserting their rightful place among the top guns in world hockey. With the win, they assured themselves of a top-four finish at the Olympics after 41 years in what was truly a coming-of-age moment.
The belief was visible in skipper Manpreet’s words. “We are so happy because after a long time we have reached a semi-final,” Manpreet said after the win. “Still, the business hasn’t finished yet. We still have two more games so we need to focus, we need to have our feet on the ground and we need to focus on the next match.”
A Strong Showing
India seized the early advantage when Dilpreet Singh found his way past the Great Britain defence and sent a rasping shot into the net to help the team go up 1-0. Much like their pool game matches, India relied on pace and attack go and it held them in good stead.
Great Britain, who began a little cautiously, were punished by India when young striker Gurjant Singh doubled India’s lead a minute into the second quarter.
India’s strong showing in the pool stages has been the story of a solid defence structure along with the constantly firing drag-flick battery of Harmanpreet, Rupinder Pal and Varun Sharma.
On Sunday though, it was the sprightly young frontline, which has been under constant scrutiny for lack of creativity and goals, that truly owned the early parts of the game and delivered when it mattered.
Down 0-2, Great Britain came out relentless and managed to pull one back through their drag-flick expert Sam Ward at the end of the third quarter, setting the game nicely up for the final quarter.
What stood out though was a calm and composed India refusing to wilt under the pressure despite the magnanimity of the occasion, which can often force the best of teams to panic and commit mistakes.
India survived waves of attack from Great Britain, negating every effort with finesse and courage. Goalkeeper Sreejesh PR yet again stood like a warrior warding off dangerous shots, while defenders Harmanpreet, Rupinder, Surender Kumar and Amit Rohidas kept the opposition under check.
India was effective on counters and young Hardik Singh made the most of one such chance, pumping in a top-of-the-circle shot three minutes from the hooter, to seal the semis place for India.
How Great Britain Played a Part in India’s Resurgence
To put things in context and understand the impact of Sunday’s achievement, it is important to look back at India hockey’s history in the 21st century. Interestingly, Great Britain has been a part of many such crucial moments.
It was in March 2008, when Great Britain induced a massive blow to Indian hockey knocking them out in the Olympic qualification tournament on a cold night in Chile. It was for the first time ever that India missed out on the Olympics. Crestfallen and shocked, it took India many years to build their hockey game from that point on.
An overhaul in the federation (Hockey India replaced Indian Hockey Federation), introduction of foreign coaches and sport science, unlearning and learning the new tools and tricks of the trade, relying more on fitness and structure than skills; India did all of that and more to bring their hockey back on track.
The first sign of success came at the 2010 Commonwealth Games at home. After winning convincingly in the pool stages, India stared at exit in the semi-final, trailing 1-3 with minutes to go. This time too, the opposition was Great Britain.
PV Sindhu. That's The Headline.
Backed by the capacity crowd and guided admirably by coach Jose Brasa of Spain, India managed to turn the tide and equalised 3-3 before winning the match on penalties. The win fuelled a belief in the squad that tasted success on the big stage for the first time in many decades.
Gradually, India went on from strength to strength. From World No. 13 at one stage, they broke into the top-10 and thereafter the top-five, in what has been a slow but definite tale of grit and belief. The journey had plenty of heartbreaks and low moments too, but the recent years saw India made steady progress.
It is that belief, determination and hard work of years that steered India on this day as they broke yet another barrier. And this time, at the biggest stage of it all — the Olympics!
India’s performance on the day would have evoked many hopes and aspirations, as they face Rio silver medallists Belgium in semis on August 3.
India may or may not be able fulfil those hopes. The results of the next two games notwithstanding, this young bunch’s achievement will remain etched in history for years to come. Together, they have put India back on the big stage and with it, turned a page in the history of Indian hockey.
They have arrived.
(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)