Varun Kumar celebrates 100th match with a special goal in comeback win
Varun Kumar scored the vital equaliser with barely minutes left as India beat Spain 5-4 in their FIH Pro League match in Bhubaneswar on Saturday.
There's a little over five minutes left for the final hooter. Lalit Upadhyay's solo run is stick-checked right outside the striking circle. The umpire signals a penalty corner for India. The Spanish ask for a video referral and lose it. As India prepare to take this short corner, all eyes are on Varun Kumar, who has a huge responsibility to convert this goal and keep India's chances alive in the match.
Hardik Singh injects, Vivek Sagar stops and Varun makes no mistake as he flicks the ball to the top right of goalkeeper Mario Garin. The score is 4-4 and India are back in the game. Varun keeps the celebration short, but is visibly relaxed after scoring the all-important goal in his 100th appearance for India.
"The match was special as it was my 100th international, but it became more memorable because of the way we fought and made a comeback. I feel lucky to have scored the equaliser," he told The Bridge after the match.
Fourteen minutes before his goal, the scoreboard had reflected a different story. India were trailing 1-4 against the Spanish until Shilanand Lakra scored the second goal for his team, the only field goal in the match. Two minutes later, Shamsher Singh narrowed the margin further.
After Varun's equaliser, Harmanpreet successfully converted a penalty stroke with 8 seconds left for full-time. From 1-4 down, India had done the impossible of winning 5-4 against the rampaging Spanish side.
"Spain had dominated well. We kept trying to score and create opportunities but they were better. At half-time, we tried to bring more energy. We stuck to the game plan, but added more energy, which changed the results for us," Varun said.
'Alternate player' at Tokyo 2020 steps up in important year
Six years ago, Varun had made his presence felt when made his debut for the junior team at the 2016 Four Nations Invitational Tournament in Spain, where he finished as the top goal-scorer. After the junior World Cup campaign in the same year, he was called for the senior team a year later, and has mostly remained a regular since then.
He has an Asia Cup gold, a bronze each from Hockey World League final in 2017 and Asian Games 2018. Varun was also part of the silver-medal winning team at the Champions Trophy in 2018.
However, the Tokyo Olympics was a bittersweet story for him. He was initially not a part of the 16-member Indian contingent but was called when the rule was changed as two more players were included as 'alternate players.' Varun played his part well, and opened the scoring in the group stage match against defending champions Argentina, as India entered into the quarterfinal.
"The rule change came as a blessing for me. It was a proud moment for me and my family. There was some disappointment for not getting into the 16-member list but I played my part in Tokyo and I am happy about it."
This is an all-important year for Indian hockey with several marquee events lined up and the Punjab-lad wants to become one of the stars of the men's team.
"The Asian Games and Commonwealth Games will be crucial for us. I know we, as a team, have a lot of improvement to make. But we are working on structure. This year is important and I am also working on my mistakes. I hope this year will be memorable for me."