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WSH - Pune Strykers: The Dark Horses

‘A Dark Horse’ – that is the label that the horde of spectators gathered in front of their television gave the Pune Strykers as they waited for the team they support to begin their match against the Shers of Punjab. If their last two matches were anything to go by, the title seems to be well fitting. Whether it was against Mumbai or Delhi, Pune had picked up their game when everything seemed to be falling apart and come through before their opposition realised what was happening. And we, along with a growing number of fans, have only gained respect for the Strykers ability to win by understanding their competition’s tactics and then using them against them.

But as we waited for this fast learning team to play the Shers of Punjab, all of us silently, but unanimously, feared that Pune did not stand much chance. Punjab had already shown their prowess and mercilessly beat Karnataka and Chennai. Pune had stumbled through the beginning of their previous matches and had won only due to their resurgence at the latter end of both the games. But the question continued to haunt us – what if Punjab didn’t allow them the chance to make that comeback?

And the match began. Punjab played hard and fast, without showing any intention of letting Pune grab the ball. And Pune only seemed to egg Punjab’s game along with their fumbling challenges, almost nonexistent relay and weak attack. Punjab’s first goal within minutes of starting sunk our hearts even further. The only positive we could consider – Pune’s defence was stronger than ever before.

Pune returned in the second quarter a little more organised than they’d left. But they didn’t seem to be in complete form yet and as they missed one opportunity after another. We could only be grateful that they were at least making opportunities for themselves. Now they just had to score on one of those opportunities. But Punjab beat them to the punch and scored again, leaving Pune with nothing at halftime. Punjab seemed to have a clear lead, not only on score, but also on the quality and speed of play. They were almost running circles around the Strykers.

But Pune’s luck changed in the third quarter and Gurpreet came through for his team as always and converted their first penalty corner. Amidst screaming, cheering and slapping, we were back to being hesitantly hopeful. Some of that hope however, dwindled as Pune failed to capitalise on multiple opportunities and Punjab continued to maintain their lead as the quarter ended.

But anything could happen. There was still time. And there was a collective pride in the group of people supporting Pune as our team returned in the fourth quarter with careful and calculated playing that kept Punjab’s attack at bay. And then came the heart-stopping moment when Punjab scored their third goal. It was over now. There was no way Pune could make up such a gap in the last quarter. And the Strykers did nothing to alleviate our fears as their play took a turn for the worse. It seemed as though Punjab’s lead had not left them unaffected.

But like the proverbial dark horse, they returned with a bang, scored their second goal and converted a penalty corner into their third score. And that penalty corner was when we realised why we loved our team. Excellent teamwork, sleek passing and beautiful scoring, all in the face of almost certain defeat.

The score was tied, but we considered it a win. The great Shers were held back by a team that seemed to be tripping over their own shoelaces initially. But they stuck to their routine and beat Punjab at their own game. One of the most awaited matches yet and it was as nail biting as it was expected to be. But the consensus amongst Pune’s fans remains that while their game might get better in every quarter and they do eventually win, maybe they should stop pushing their luck and get their game in control from the first bell on.

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