Eight gold medalists in the squad from Rio and an equal number of PCs were unable to break India down until the final quarter as Rani Rampal and Co. very nearly pulled off an upset against the Olympic Champions in London on Saturday. A defensive error following the ninth PC was all England needed to salvage a draw and heave a sigh of relief with a point in the kitty.
It was heartbreaking for the Indian girls and the millions of their fans, but Indian coach Sjoerd Marijne feels the players deserve credit and will look back at the result with pride once the disappointment dwindles.
In an exclusive interaction with Sportskeeda after the match, the Dutchman shed light on the strategy India adopted and what the result means for the rest of the competition.
"If there are just 8 minutes to play, and you are up 1-0, then it is always a hard thing to be happy with a draw. The most important thing is that the girls are not happy with a draw and that means a lot to me. It also means that they are dedicated, want to do really well here, and are not afraid of anyone."
"Girls were smart in defence"
Marijne had predicted that the pressure would be on hosts England in the opening match and his assessment could not have been more accurate. As shouts of "England, England" emanated from the vociferous sell-out crowd in London, the English girls started with a bang and earned a PC in the very first minute.
The Indians refused to be taken aback, however, and did well to soak up the initial pressure, starting forays of their own into English territory. It was the English who seemed to be astounded by the Indian attacks and Giselle Ansley, seemingly in a daze, misdirected a pass towards India's Lalremsiani in an effort to clear the ball out of the circle.
The Indians could not capitalize, however, and Lily Owsley and Alex Danson displayed their explosive speed and skill to penetrate the Indian 25 on more than one occasion. Skipper Danson, in particular, was brilliant and seemed to take it upon herself to single-handedly combat the Indians with some scintillating runs.
Marijne acknowledged as much but stated that the girls were smart in defence and adopted a deliberate double-team strategy (two defensive players to counter one offensive player), to nullify the England attacks.
"Yes, we definitely matched England but they have a few players who are extremely fast and therefore the tactics were to keep them outside the circle. The girls played a double team on the back line and I think the defenders did that really well."
England very nearly earned a penalty stroke in the second quarter, but the Indians referred wisely and the video referee awarded a PC instead. Savita made some great blocks to save the day for India as she has done so often. At the other end, Navjot set Neha Goyal up and a stunned silence descended upon large sections of the Lee Valley Hockey and Tennis Center.
India had the lead at half time, and used to it to good advantage as they tightened up smartly in midfield and despite their best efforts, the hosts were unable to make effective circle penetrations to gets shots on goal. Instead, they earned one PC after another and kept the pressure up and thus managed to peg the Indians back for a considerable length of time.
Keeping up the intensity in the final quarter was always going to be a challenge and the Indian girls did so until the very end.
Deepika Thakur, however, seemed to mishit a clearance and the England players accepted the chance with some glee as Lila Owsley pounced on the ball at the goalmouth and beat Savita.
"Result will improve confidence, although the girls were never short of it"
Importantly, they did not concede a goal at the death, a crime which many Indian teams of the past have committed often, as Marijne pointed out.
"The fitness was good and we kept running for the whole match which was a big improvement and Wayne Lombard, our Scientific Advisor did a really good job with the girls."
"Just one defensive mistake cost us the win. It was really tough to defend in the end. Having said that, a lot of Indian teams in the past concede goals in the dying minutes, and the girls did not allow that to happen."
"The girls had a lot of confidence before the match as well and this match will improve the confidence levels. The girls have a lot of self-confidence about what they can do and that is a big improvement for the whole team. I am really happy with what the psychologist did with the team and how the girls are taking this up."
The Indian girls, he said, were disappointed with the result, but are hungry for more.
"They are disappointed, it means that they think they could have done more in this match. As a sportsperson, and as an athlete, it is really important when you are disappointed with a loss or a draw as you have worked very hard for it and I think that is a natural thing."
"When they go to sleep, slowly that will disappear and when they wake up tomorrow, they will be proud of themselves. They want more and I think that is a really good thing about disappointment. Girls are hungry for more."
The Indians face Ireland next and Marijne feels the Golden Girls need to iron out a few flaws ahead of the match.
"Focussing on the result and not the performance, in the first two quarters, I think we had a lot of interceptions and we could have done more than that. It is a pity that we could not, because the press was really good. With regard to ball possession, we could have done better than this and more importantly, the girls feel the same."
"The above factors are important for the match against Ireland, not only defending well but also ball possession."
For now, though, the Indian girls can hold their heads high after an exhilarating performance as the Dutchman summed up.
"It was never easy to play against the Olympic champions but the team did really well."
Strangely, lower-ranked India seemed despondent, while favourites England was relieved with the result. If that is an indication of things to come, the rest of Pool B - and maybe the others teams too, will be wary of Sjoerd Marijne's Indian eves as they will only get better now, with every single match.Published 22 Jul 2018, 13:02 IST