FIH Champions Trophy 2018: Curbing emotions will be key in tricky opener, Pakistan side strengthened by the return of seniors
Truth, they say is stranger than fiction, and perhaps a trifle more dramatic too. Ask any Indian supporter who witnessed the hockey opener of the Commonwealth Games, whether at home, in Australia, or elsewhere, and they will vociferously vouch for the same.
Indian fans had just begun the victory celebrations as Manpreet Singh's boys led by a goal with less than ten seconds to play when Pakistan earned a PC. The flick was cleared and the Indians including Mandeep were seen exchanging high-fives when the Pakistan players charged towards the referee claiming a referral for an Indian foot in the circle.
The replays were played out no less than four times, from every possible angle, and left no doubt in the minds of the viewers that the ball had definitely not struck an Indian foot. "No foot there, no foot there, no foot there", stated the television commentator unequivocally describing the movement of the ball in the circle as Gurinder was seen deftly pirouetting over the ball twice and Rupinder clearing cleanly.
Countless Indian fans heaved sighs of relief which in a few seconds were transformed into agonizing groans after the voice of the video umpire rang out loud and clear, indicating that his conclusion was diametrically opposite to most others. "I have a decision for you - penalty corner!"
Following a stunned silence in the Indian camp (and a few cheers from Pakistan supporters in the crowd), Mubashar Ali struck the PC low and to the extreme right of Sreejesh who stood no chance whatsoever. The Pakistani players charged on to the centre of the pitch exulting like they had just won an Olympic medal.
For the Indian camp, the stunning reverse in the first match was followed by a series of lacklustre performances as a result of which the silver-medalists returned home empty-handed.
"The opening encounter of a tournament is vital," Indian veteran SV Sunil told Sportskeeda as he helped us analyze the cliffhanger that was played out on April 7. "The opening match sets the tone for the rest of the tournament."
Ten tumultuous weeks have passed. Yet again, the old rivals will clash and yet again the match is an opener. Is India better prepared this time? What really happened in the encounter at Gold Coast?
Encounter against Pakistan, just another match?
On the eve of the epic encounter, Indian coach Sjoerd Marijne had opined that an afternoon start (at 1430 local time) in hot and humid Gold Coast would indeed be a challenge but also added that the opposition would have to counter the same conditions. As it turned out, a few Indian players did lose their cool but it was not so much the weather that was the culprit.
Prior to the Commonwealth Games, every single player in the Indian camp we spoke to echoed much the same sentiment when asked how they were approaching the pool match against Pakistan. They stated quite emphatically that Pakistan was just another team and the opening encounter of the CWG would be no different from the others that would follow.
When asked if he concurred with the same given the history, the rivalry, the huge crowds, and the emotions involved, this is what Sjoerd Marijne had told us.
"The most important thing for us is to maintain our structure, not get emotional, and stick to the plan. If we do that, we don't have to worry. That will lead to a good game and if we play a good game, we will win."
Everything seemed to be going according to the coach's plan and the Indians were advancing like a well-oiled machine. A scintillating run by SV Sunil from the right flank was followed up by an equally well-directed cross which was picked up by Dilpreet Singh in the striking circle who needed just a couple of touches to score a sublime field goal.
With a minute left in the first quarter, India had the lead and the momentum was well and truly with Sjoerd Marijne's boys. India earned a PC in the 20th minute of play and Harmanpreet Singh showed just why he is one of the very best in the business by slamming a low powerful flick into the back of the net to double the lead.
'Pakistan players provoked Akashdeep'
No more than a couple of minutes had elapsed when, out of the blue, events took an ugly turn. Akashdeep Singh got involved in an altercation with a few Pakistan players and fellow striker SV Sunil rushed to his side. The fiery exchange led to a yellow card for Akashdeep, and for a Pakistan player as well.
All of a sudden, Pakistan seemed to have turned the tables and enjoyed a lion's share of the possession. They earned their first PC in the 25th minute and a couple more in the next five minutes. Playing in the first major tournament post his injury last year, Sreejesh was forced to execute some great saves to prevent his citadel from being breached. After the long breather, Pakistan continued to exert pressure and reduced the deficit in the 39th minute when Mohd Irfran Jr scored off a pass from Muhammad Dilber.
At the end of the third quarter, Chinglensana too was shown a yellow card after a wild swing that reduced India to ten men for the second time in the vital encounter.
"Akashdeep Singh lost his cool after he was provoked by a Pakistan player. I intervened right away as I knew that if we allowed our emotions to get the better of us, we would lose our composure and play into the hands of the Pakistanis," said SV Sunil. "In such a fast-paced match it became impossible to keep up the tempo after being down to ten men."
Sunil told us that the Pakistani players have a history of provoking the Indians on the pitch but that the Indian camp will not allow the provocation to affect their game at Breda.
"All of us have now decided that in the event of any provocation by the Pakistan players, we will maintain our cool at any cost. Our aim is to win the match and not to engage in scuffles."
Can an India-Pakistan encounter be free of emotion?
When we asked Indian coach Harendra Singh what prompted him to pursue hockey as a child, he was quick to recollect that the 1-7 drubbing that India suffered at the hands of arch-rivals Pakistan in the national capital Delhi, 36 years ago, hurt him so deeply that he vowed to make amends even though he didn't know much about the game then.
The Indian coach was not alone and millions of Indians who either witnessed the match when it happened or heard of it later as they grew up wished fervently that the tables would turn some day. Not much has changed and the tension in the air is palpable every time the two sides clash.
So, can an encounter between India and Pakistan be bereft of any emotion?
Ramandeep Singh was not at Gold Coast but has played against Pakistan several times including in the HWL Semifinal and Asia Cup last year when India outplayed their arch-rivals by huge margins. "Emotions are always very high when we play against Pakistan", said Ramandeep.
"The challenge is to perform on the field without letting the emotions affect your game. My target in every match against Pakistan is to play just as I do against any other side. We had almost won the CWG encounter, but they scored at the very end and I am certain that all the players would have analyzed the game after the match and made a note of the errors they committed."
Now that the team has learned where they erred, what will India be doing differently in Breda?
'Coach has chalked out an elaborate strategy to counter Pakistan'
"Every team has a different structure," said Sunil as he explained to us what the team's strategy will be against Pakistan. "We cannot adopt the same plan to counter Pakistan and Australia as their structures are completely different. Coach Sir (Harendra Singh) has chalked out an elaborate plan. We have a practice match in which we will try out the strategies."
Every player, he said, has been given different responsibilities for the match against Pakistan.
"In the second half of the match (at Gold Coast), we allowed Pakistan to play long balls into the circle. We committed a few errors as we allowed them to penetrate the striking circle and earn PCs at the end of the match. We watched the video clips of the match and have worked hard on learning how not to concede goals in the dying seconds."
Former captain Sardar Singh was very clear on what India's strategy should be against Pakistan.
"We have played several matches against Pakistan and of course we need to win. It will be vital for us to stick to the plan and follow the strategy which is devised by our coaches. The youngsters will be nervous I am quite sure, but Sreejesh, Sunil, and I will sit with them and make them understand that we need to win the match but that they should it approach it like any other game."
'Oltmans knows our weaknesses, but we know his weaknesses too'
Pakistan touched down in Holland well before the Indians did to play a few preparatory matches ahead of the last edition of the Champions Trophy. Chief selector, Islahuddin Siddique was the captain of the team which won gold in the inaugural edition of the Champions Trophy in 1978 and the team's manager is legendary centre-forward Hassan Sardar who was captain of the side when Pakistan won gold in the 1984 Olympics.
At Gold Coast, captain Mohammad Rizwan Sr impressed the most for Pakistan as did goalkeeper Imran Butt. Mubashar Ali is the name most Indians will not forget in a hurry following his dramatic strike off a PC at the death while Aleem Bilal's drag flicks are no less potent.
Ramandeep Singh told us that the match against Pakistan will be a viewer's delight. "Pakistan is improving as a lot of their senior players have made a comeback. They have improved their structure and of course, they too are preparing for the Asian Games. The matches which you will witness against Pakistan will all be of a very high quality."
SV Sunil, however, states emphatically that India is confident going into the opener. "Maybe you feel that they have an advantage as Oltmans is the coach now. True, Oltmans knows our strengths and weakness as he was with us for over 3 years but we know Oltmans' strengths and weaknesses too."
An India-Pak encounter is more than just about history and emotion. Both countries play a fast and free-flowing brand of hockey that has always been a spectator's delight and the opener at Breda should be no different. A roller coaster is on the cards as two of the best hockey playing nations in the world will clash yet again with the match scheduled to start at 1730 India time on Super Saturday.