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Pune Strykers: From dark horses to fizzled firecrackers

The one sentence that rang through the entire match, whether being said by the commentators or fans, was that Pune was, as yet, the only unbeaten team so far in the WSH. That fact, while being a compliment to the Strykers who only get better at playing as a team, also puts them under pressure which was evident in their match against the Bhopal Badshahs.

Bhopal can’t be much of a challenge for Pune, especially after the game they’d faced against Punjab. But that was only the preliminary thought we, the ardent followers of Pune, had. A closer look at Bhopal’s score trajectory showed that they were not that far behind Pune. And the fact that they’d sneaked up to the top three of the table, while everyone remained unaware, made them that much more of a force to reckon with. But our belief remained unshaken, spurred on by the moral win against Punjab.

Their first match on home ground and the Strykers were surrounded by an almost filled stadium of screaming supporters and fans. The home team came on with a bang from the second the bell sounded, something we’d been waiting to see. A near goal and almost converted penalty corner in the first minute strengthened our faith that our team would not lose this match. As minutes passed, Pune continued to hold the game in their hands. They refused to relieve themselves of possession of the ball and made one attempt after another to score. But the Badshahs defense and their omnipresent goalkeeper, Baljit Singh, were almost as impregnable as the Sinhgad Fort. And we watched the minutes tick on as Pune remained unable to score.

The second quarter brought the change that we’d been waiting for. Gurpreet Singh capitalised on the Strykers penalty corner and we had our first goal. And that was when the Badshahs upped their game. The clear edge that Pune had over Bhopal in the first quarter seemed to be slowly, but surely, dwindling.

The third quarter gave us equal opportunity to applaud in joy and groan in sorrow as Pune continued to make one attempt after another, but failed in each, sometimes by mere inches. The full force start seemed to be taking a toll on the Strykers as their stamina and speed reduced, giving Bhopal more opportunities than Pune’s defense had initially allowed. And as we consoled each other that the Strykers will come back into form within minutes, we saw Vikas Pillai fly over the field and then being taken away on a stretcher. The loss of Pune’s favorite local player could only spell disaster for the Strykers. The third quarter ended with Pune in the lead, but with a sense of an impending draw.

When the Strykers returned in the fourth quarter, they seemed to have had the wind knocked out of them. While the Badhsahs had spent the first quarter in trying to catch up with the Strykers, Pune seemed to be mimicking their play in the last and most crucial quarter. Their haphazard play gave Bhopal the opportunity they’d been waiting for and the score was drawn with minutes left in the game.

We still continued to have enough belief in the Strykers to know that they wouldn’t let themselves lose, at least not the first match on their home ground. And their supporters did not let them forget this as they went hoarse with cheering for their team in the situations with even the most minute shreds of opportunity that the Strykers were trying to grab. But as the last thirty seconds rolled around and Bhopal obtained a penalty corner, we were no longer sure. Some miraculous defending saved the goal but gave the Badshahs another penalty corner. Our surety disappeared. Bhopal was determined to win; it was evident in their play of the last fifteen minutes, and a second penalty corner was as good as letting them. But the Strykers’ desire to remain the only undefeated team kicked in and they held the Badshahs back, cinching their position at the top.

The match ended a draw. But the consensus was simple. If we had a moral victory against Sher-e-Punjab, this was a moral defeat. Given Pune’s start, no one could have said that they would have fizzled out in the final minutes. And the Badshahs used the Strykers’ strategy against them – they learnt their game and then beat them at it.

But the Strykers still remain the only undefeated team and that gives us renewed hope. They got over their problem of complete confusion during their initial minutes of every game and seem to be playing in a more organised manner. Now we only hope that their stamina lives up to their intent so that when they play the Cheetahs next, they don’t ape another fizzled fire cracker.

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