Champions Trophy Hockey 2018: India beats Olympic champs Argentina to make Sardar's 300th international special
"Given the morale of the team and the way the boys are playing, I am confident of a top-three finish (at Breda)."
The above statement emanated from none other than chief coach Harendra Singh when he spoke to Sportskeeda a couple of weeks back as the Indian team was undergoing a rigorous preparatory camp at Bangalore. The confidence which the coach exuded was appreciable indeed, but the task ahead seemed arduous to say the least.
In the Commonwealth Games, India was second only to Australia in terms of the FIH world rankings. Yet, the Indian team ended up a disappointing fourth, scraping past Wales on the way, and failing to beat Pakistan, both of whom do not figure in the FIH top ten. The question uppermost in the minds of Indian hockey fans was quite simple.
Given the state of affairs, how would India match up to higher-ranked teams like Belgium, Holland, and Argentina who are not part of the Commonwealth, and indeed with Australia as well who India managed to avoid in the semi-final at Gold Coast?
India look like a team rejuvenated
Just two matches have yet been played by Sreejesh's boys in the Champions Trophy thus far and many would caution that it is too soon to reach a definitive conclusion, but the manner in which the Indians have performed has been nothing short of a revelation.
Avoiding a PC at any cost was what Indian hockey fans were hoping for in their second encounter given the fact Argentina seem to be powered by the force of just one master drag-flicker.
Just over ten minutes into the match, many Indian fans may well have skipped a heartbeat as Argentina earned their first PC.
Manpreet Singh rushed forward like a man possessed and Peillat's powerful flick ricocheted off his thighs. It was evident from then on that the Indians were definitely not going to be cowed down by the reputation of either the Olympic champions or their one-man goal machine.
Argentina earned the PCs which they so dearly wanted, and Gonzalo Peillat was on the pitch to take every one of them. He scored once, but that was scarcely enough for his team to beat an inspired and rejuvenated Indian outfit at Breda.
Ramandeep's injury which had disappointed Indian fans before the match began did little to dampen the spirits of Harendra Singh's buoyant side.
The master drag-flicker may have been the top scorer in the Olympic Games and the World Cup as well but the Indians kept him out, not once but thrice off back-to-back to PCs. A couple of minutes into the second quarter, the opening goal of the match resulted and it did come off a PC.
The goalscorer was not the Argentine veteran, but India's very own expert in the field, Harmanpreet Singh. Sardar Singh playing his 300th international, executed a perfect injection, vice-captain Chinglensana stopped the ball, and Harmanpreet did what he has done so very often for India by beating the Argentine goalie with a powerful strike.
Coordination between the strikers was conspicuous by its absence at Gold Coast and yet the manner in which Dilpreet controlled an aerial ball in the circle to help Mandeep score his second goal of the tournament seems to suggest that the pieces of the puzzle are all falling into place for India and just at the right time too.
Peillat did finally score one off a PC, but it was perhaps too little and too late.
Sardar Singh, the guide, and mentor
Sardar Singh may lack the speed he once had but uses guile and artistry instead. Fresh legs need some inspiration to get them going and Sardar's presence in the side has served to rejuvenate the Indian team and help them overcome the Gold Coast debacle.
The veteran was emphatic that he had a dual responsibility in Breda, and that apart from his own performance, he would also focus on guiding the youngsters.
There is a spring in their step that was missing in the Commonwealth Games, the trapping is as neat as ever, the passes accurate, and the energy is infectious. As SV Sunil told Sportskeeda on the eve of the tournament, the opener is always important to get the ball rolling and the win against arch-rivals Pakistan has got India's campaign off to a flyer.
It was no secret that Harendra Singh had the qualifications, being India's only FIH-certified coach.
It was no secret too that he had the experience, having started his coaching journey in 1998, and having coached the senior squad (as a stop-gap arrangement) for a while in 2009 and 2010. He got India a gold in the Junior World Cup in 2016 and also one in the Women's Asia Cup last year.
But was he good enough to take charge of the senior men's team, and more importantly did he have the time to force the changes he needed to?
Harendra may well have sought refuge in the conditionals such as "if" and "but" like many veterans did following his appointment saying that he had the ability but lacked time. Instead, he declared boldly and unequivocally that he had spent enough time serving Indian hockey and did not require more of the same as he was aware of the language, the culture, and the system as well.
It may be early days yet, but the initial indications are vigorous enough to safely conclude that Indian hockey is in the right hands and hopefully on the path to ascendancy in a year of reckoning with the Asian Games and the World Cup coming up.
Sardar Singh made no secret of the fact that he was disappointed at not being picked for the Commonwealth Games when he spoke to us last week.
Perhaps, it is for the best that the veteran played his historic 300th international at a time when the Indian team is on a magical run with two consecutive victories, one against their oldest rivals, and the other against the Olympic champions.
India will be up against World Champions Australia next on Wednesday followed by Belgium and hosts Holland. With the dream start that the Indians have had, for the moment at least nothing seems impossible, and at the very least, a top-three finish which Harendra predicted to Sportskeeda is very much on the cards.