FIH Men's Pro League 2020: Redemption for Sreejesh, vindication for Rupinder amidst India's Pro League conquest at Kalinga
Two of the most attacking hockey teams on the planet played out a couple of intense, spectacular and utterly entertaining contests in front of a vociferous and equally appreciative audience at Odisha's Kalinga Stadium as the 2020 Men's FIH Pro League got off to a rousing start.
The weekend action switched from end to end in the blink of an eye, but it was not the pace of the two eagerly-awaited matches that surprised hockey fans around the world.
A fast and hotly-contested affair was always on the cards, but the scoreline of the first clash and the overall result of both delighted the home fans, jolted the Dutch, and left many a hockey expert feeling more than a bit astonished.
The Indians had scarce opportunity to lock horns with the top-ranked teams last year barring tour matches against Australia and Belgium, while the best in the business were busy playing the Pro League and EuroHockey.
Yet, Graham Reid's inspired unit outplayed the Dutch by a 5-2 margin on Saturday and kept the pace and momentum going to record a shootout win in the second encounter after both sides were locked 3-3 at the end of regulation time.
Sweet revenge for India - Rupinder scores thrice in two matches
Manpreet and co. had a point to prove to their loyal and die-hard fans in Bhubaneswar and beyond following India's defeat against the Netherlands in the World Cup quarterfinal, but several of the Men in Blue used the Kalinga pitch to assert themselves ahead of a busy season ahead.
On Saturday, Gurjant Singh's first-minute goal caught the Dutch defence off guard and set the tone for what was to come while the young striker's former hostel-mate and idol, Rupinder Pal Singh silenced detractors with blazing PC strikes reminiscent of the days when the towering drag-flicker was a major force to reckon with.
It was quite obvious that Rupinder was the first choice as far as the PCs were concerned and the stalwart did not disappoint with a brace in the first match and one goal in the second, foxing the Dutch runners with alternating low and lofted flicks.
Gurjant's vigorous comeback gives the Indian think-tank more options up front while Rupinder's return to form will give the opposition camps a lot to think about and prepare for as the year unfolds.
The Indian forward line resembled a well-oiled machine for the most part and although Lalit Upadhyaya missed a couple of sitters on Sunday, the striker from UP was the live wire and combined seamlessly with Mandeep, Akashdeep, and the indefatigable SV Sunil who continues to pack a punch at 30 after return from injury.
Despite trailing the Dutch by a 1-3 margin at the long breather after which Manpreet Singh was sent off for ten minutes, the Indians weathered the storm whilst the captain was away and upped the ante in the final quarter to force a shootout, drawing a rapturous response from the stands.
For veteran PR Sreejesh, who failed to get India over the line in vital shootouts that included the Champions Trophy finals of 2016 and 2018 and the tragic Asian Games semifinal, it was time for redemption.
The manner in which the champion goalkeeper strode forward with an air of supreme confidence to take on the likes of Hertzberger, Schuurman, and Brinkman was a sight to behold as the chants "Sreejesh, Sreejesh" resonated from the Kalinga galleries.
The bonus point gained as a result of the shootout win in the second match means that the Indians have earned five vital points from the first couple of matches while the Dutch had to be content with one point for managing to keep the scores level at the end of regulation time on Sunday.
Graham Reid who had served in the Dutch camp before his India stint began could not have asked for a better start for the Indians who will play Belgium and Australia next month.
While the road ahead is long and arduous with fourteen matches still to be played ahead one thing is for certain - the Indians are none the worse for having gotten through a relatively sedate 2019 - which has hopefully whetted the appetite for greater success in an action-packed 2020 Tokyo Olympics year.
Published 20 Jan 2020, 09:19 IST