The Indian men's team began their Olympics 2021 campaign with a hard-fought 3-2 win against Group A rivals New Zealand. The encounter was never expected to be an easy one for the Men in Blue who have succumbed on a few occasions against an attacking New Zealand side in the past.
The Kiwis love to utilize the width of the field to their advantage and have troubled India in their earlier encounters. The stinging crosses that zipped across the pitch at the Oi Hockey Stadium kept the Indian defenders on their toes but failed to unsettle the unit as a whole.
The Indians, who have often been derided for conceding at the death, held on with aplomb as Darren Smith's side applied unrelenting pressure during the final quarter.
The elusive equalizer failed to materialize and the Indians left the field with 3 vital points in their kitty ahead of their big game against Australia on Sunday.
The intense encounter in Tokyo brought up three interesting facts. Let's take a look at them:
PCs do matter despite the recent slump in conversion rates
The dry pitch that was on offer at the 2018 Champions Trophy at Breda needed watering before every PC. If memory serves right, it caused more than a bit of anguish, particularly in the Indian camp.
Chris Ciriello, who was then the Analytical Coach, took up the matter with the officials following the inability of his wards to stop the ball cleanly following the push-ins.
However, the PC drought has become a trend over the last few years and it continued in the Odisha World Cup as well with even the best teams struggling to convert them.
The Indian think-tank attributed the same to increased surveillance undertaken by rival coaches who studied every single move of the PC takers and planned remedial action faster than the drag flick specialists could diversify their repertoire.
All of this was in stark contrast to the 2016 Rio Games when Gonzalo Peillat almost single-handedly won Argentina the gold medal after converting a whopping 11 PCs during the course of the tournament.
Just when it seemed that the efficacy of the set pieces seemed to be diminishing, the India-New Zealand match (that saw 4 goals being scored from set pieces, including 3 PCs and a stroke that resulted from a PC) has now re-emphasized the importance of the drag flicks.
Rupinder Pal Singh hit the crossbar before finding the net while Harmanpreet scored twice. Kane Russell did his bit for New Zealand with one successful drag flick and may well have added to the tally if not for the heroics of India's veteran goalkeeper PR Sreejesh.
India's PR Sreejesh proves that age is just a number
The sheer demeanor of the man when he strides out to the center - as he did before his side took the field against New Zealand - helps give his team a spring in their stride while intimidating the opposition at the same time.
Sreejesh was eager to impress following his return from injury in 2018 and must have enjoyed silencing his critics by proving that his goalkeeping post recovery is even better than what it had initially been.
The inability to get his team over the line in vital shootouts stood out like a sore thumb but Sreejesh's exploits during the New Zealand encounter were enough to inspire his teammates to a win ahead of a grueling series of matches to come.
PR Sreejesh was largely responsible for the win in the opener against the Kiwis. Using his pads, gloves and athleticism that would put a younger man to shame, the custodian from Kerala ensured that the Indians suffered no last-minute hiccups as they often do.
It is not an easy task to bring your A-game to the very first match of an Olympic event. Not to mention having to put up with some inexplicable delays following the barrage of referrals that puzzled the video umpire as much as the teams on the pitch.
Is there a serious issue with the video referral system?
The "no advice possible" announcement is one that follows an inconclusive referral when the camera angles on offer are unable to confirm or deny the question being asked.
It goes without saying that the above is expected to be a rarity especially when it gets difficult to spot the ball in overcrowded circles with a host of legs hopping and shimmying in different directions.
Yet when Martin Madden and Coen van Bunge sought to direct the players many referrals upstairs, television replays played on for what seemed an eternity following which it was concluded that the angles were not good enough to pass a judgment either way.
One shudders to wonder what the state of affairs would be if a similar issue persisted throughout the tournament in the vital knockout matches when the tension could become palpable.
For now, players and spectators will hope that what transpired on Saturday morning was a one-off bad day for the unfortunate video umpire who could do with a good day's rest.