Champions Trophy: From Chennai to Breda, Indian hockey's phenomenal rise
Thousands of Indian hockey fans had stayed up well past midnight to marvel at the exploits of Sreejesh and his boys as they came tantalizingly close to winning gold in the 36th edition of the hockey world's entertainment showpiece.
Quite shockingly, Blake Govers missed a penalty stroke as he shot wide in the big final. Sreejesh blocked Govers' powerful drag-flick and kept the Aussie strikers at bay for the entire sixty minutes. The Indians had played one of their best matches in years, and yet as the night progressed in London, there dawned a realization of how close they had come to achieving the impossible.
At Breda, Govers capitalized on a rare lapse in concentration from India's champion goalkeeper to give his team a vital lead which was canceled out by young Vivek Sagar. It was past midnight in Australia, but prime time for Indian television viewers, as yet again history chose to repeat itself in quite an uncanny fashion.
One nation rewrote the history books while the other came stunningly close to an epic resurrection.
Sreejesh versus Tyler Lovell again
It was a couple of years ago when, at the fifteenth attempt, eight-time Olympic gold medalists India had a shot at the title in the penultimate edition of the Champions Trophy.
Sreejesh's boys had earned 7 points with a couple of wins, a draw, and a loss after 4 matches, while Great Britain and Belgium had 5 points each from as many matches. India, ideally, needed a win against the Aussies, as 3 points for either Great Britain or Belgium would have ended their hopes of joining Australia in the final.
The Australians showed no mercy to the Indians in spite of having qualified for the final, winning 4-2. Belgium and Great Britain, however, played out a draw to help India progress to their first ever Champions Trophy final.
The Indians fought valiantly but Tyler Lovell stood tall under the upright to frustrate the Indians in the shootout after a goalless draw. Two years later, yet again, it was the 31-year-old Lovell who would end forever India's hopes of a Champions Trophy gold.
Indeed, who could have predicted that the final would yet again require a shootout to decide a winner?
Indian coach Harendra Singh told Sportskeeda that while the Indians were prepared for a shootout and had trained adequately for the same, a tie-breaker was hardly the best way to decide a winner and that his team should have sealed the deal in regulation time.
"We had trained for the possibility of a shootout. Yet, in a shootout, there is no guarantee of success because a player has just 8 seconds to try and score and there is every chance that he may commit an error. I feel, we have to get into the habit of winning matches in 60 minutes. Even an inferior team can succeed in a shootout."
"I feel we were very much in the game and could have finished off the match in 60 minutes."
Losing in a shootout may seem cruel but the one-on-one eight-second battle between goalkeeper and striker is now the preferred choice in competitions worldwide.
In April 2011, the International Hockey Federation decided to do away with the conventional alternating penalty strokes to decide the outcome of a final or a classification match in case of scores being deadlocked at the end of regulation time. The change in rules was introduced as the FIH felt that the one-on-one shootouts replicated real match situations better than the penalty strokes which were taken from the spot.
Further in 2013, the game's governing body decided to scrap the extra time rule which allowed the game to be extended beyond regulation time and ruled that in case of tied matches, the shootout would be the only decider to be used.
Avid Indian hockey fans will no doubt agree that in the larger context, the team's loss in the shootout is a mere trifle when compared to the heartening manner in which the players performed throughout at Breda. Not so long ago, the Indians failed to earn a place, or be invited to play the Champions Trophy and had to strive to make a comeback into the elite tournament.
Who then could have predicted that the same nation would come so very close to winning the prestigious competition?
Rise from the ashes
Chennai was chosen to host the Champions Trophy in the year 2005. Hosts India who had finished 4th in the previous edition at Lahore lost all their matches, going down to Spain, Pakistan, Australia, Germany, and the Netherlands. Following the ignominious last-place finish, Indian hockey seemed to slip to a new low.
At the World Cup in 2006 in Monchengladbach, Germany, India were placed in Pool B and ended winless in the group matches, losing to Germany, Korea, Holland, England and South Africa. Worse still, they lost the first classification match to Argentina and managed to avoid the wooden spoon beating South Africa to end in eleventh place.
The most successful team in the history of the field hockey competition in the Olympics failed to qualify for Beijing 2008, and were simply in no shape to continue playing in the Champions Trophy.
As the elite of the hockey world locked horns in the grueling and prestigious competition, India was forced to eat humble pie playing the Champions Challenge for the so-called second rung teams.
After initially struggling to qualify, India won bronze in the Champions Challenge in 2007 and 2009 and finished second behind Belgium in 2011. Sandeep Singh was awarded the best player of the tournament, as India won silver at Johannesburg and slowly clawed their way back to the world stage.
Why beating Pakistan was special
After a gap of 7 years, India played the Champions Trophy in 2012 and finished 4th, losing to Pakistan in the bronze-medal match. Pakistan proved to be India's nemesis yet again in 2014 as the eventual silver-medalists defeated India in the semifinals of the 8-nation tournament. In fact, the Indians were deprived of a bronze in 2002, 2003, and 2004 by none other than their oldest rivals!
Three-time winners Pakistan did not compete in the 2016 edition of the Champions Trophy when India first won silver. So, from the moment Ramandeep Singh scored the opening goal of the final edition of the tournament against Pakistan, India looked like they were at Breda to compete and not just participate.
Ramandeep also delivered a pinpoint assist to Lalit Upadhaya who scored the fourth goal in the opener, and it was indeed tragic that the player who was making a comeback could play just one match. Coach Harendra Singh reckons that the ace striker who sustained a knee fracture is part of the core group of 48 players and can return to action soon.
"Injury is part and parcel of the game. Ramandeep has undergone an operation and the entire team will help him recover and keep him motivated. Rehabilitation is extremely important after such an injury but I would like to see him back on the pitch soon. It is our duty to assist him in every possible manner and we will do so."
As India prepare for the Asian Games where a summit clash with Pakistan is likely, they will be pleased that they got the better of Oltmans' side at Breda. Yet, Pakistan was in the hunt for just over three-quarters of the match and the Indians will do well not to take their old rivals lightly.
The wily Shafqat Rasool showed glimpses of his old brilliance at Breda while Aleem Bilal and Mubashar Ali could be dangerous with their drag-flicks. Imran Butt did a good job in goal as Oltman's team thrashed Argentina 4-1 and had close games against Australia and Belgium (in the classification match).
The quality of the opposition at the Asian Games is hardly as daunting as the Champions Trophy, with Malaysia, Pakistan, and Korea ranked 12, 13, and 14 respectively but the challenge at Jakarta is to finish with nothing less than gold.
India are grouped with Belgium in the World Cup and will be pleased with their performance against the Olympic silver-medalists and also with the Netherlands who they may run into in the playoffs.
Indian coach Harendra Singh believes that on December 16, India will finish on the World Cup podium at Bhubaneswar for the first time since 1975. If they do, then the gallant performance of Sreejesh and his boys at Breda will have played more than a small part in reviving Indian hockey and inspiring confidence for the journey ahead.