Thirteen months ago, Indian striker Akashdeep Singh cut a sorry figure as he strode off the field with an air of dejection following India’s loss to the Netherlands in the Hockey World Cup quarterfinal and was subsequently pulled up for a gesture that breached the FIH code of conduct.
At the same venue, on Sunday evening, the incredibly talented 25-year-old clenched his fists in celebration after scoring the winning goal by deftly pushing one past the redoubtable Sam van der Ven, as Indian hockey fans erupted with joy following a shootout win over Max Caldas’ Dutch side in the 2020 Men’s Pro League opener.
The Indians pulverized the opposition with a scoreline that read 5-2 in the first encounter and snuffed out the Dutch resistance in the second as both teams ended with three goals apiece at the end of regulation time.
The hosts also managed to win a shootout at long last which was the icing on the cake for goalkeeper PR Sreejesh following a string of vital shootout losses in the recent past. On Saturday, the Indians outrun, outmanoeuvred and outclassed the World Cup silver medalists after Manpreet Singh set Gurjant up for a first-minute goal after which the Dutch never really found their footing.
Rupinder Pal Singh who was India’s principal drag flicker before Harmanpreet took over, seems to have regained his Midas touch. The gentle giant took the very first PC that his team earned and made no mistake going low and to the right of the goalkeeper and also scored India’s fifth by trying the aerial route, on Saturday.
Rupinder also scored in the second leg and bagged the Player of the Match award helping the Indians fortify the PC department in Varun Kumar’s absence.
What was remarkable about India’s performance was the fact that there was no let up in the intensity in the second encounter after a comprehensive win in the first – this, against a formidable side like the Netherlands, is sure to do wonders to the confidence of a compact-looking unit.
Even after Max Caldas’ boys had veered ahead with a 3-1 goal in the second encounter and threatened a fourth, the Indians refused to panic – and steadfastly saw off a period of intense pressure after being down to ten men following Manpreet’s ten-minute yellow-card.
Critics who had questioned Graham Reid’s credentials have been silenced – at least, for the moment following India’s stupendous show which earned them five vital points – three for Saturday’s victory, and one each for the draw and shootout win on Sunday.
What worked for the hosts was the fact that a fit and full-strength unit was available for the opener, but it will be interesting to see how the Men in Blue fare when they take on Belgium and Australia next month.
For now, though, it’s time to relish the moment as a confident and cohesive unit raise hopes of great possibilities much like after the Champions Trophy at Breda in 2018.
Those familiar with Indian hockey will, however, hasten to add with a fair degree of caution, that it may be a trifle too early to make any outlandish predictions given what transpired after the Breda high.
Few can dispute the fact, though, that the 2020 Men’s Pro League has gotten off to a perfect start – and, it’s time to savour the hockey flavor like never before.