In the second minute of their quarterfinal match against Australia, only the narrow goal post prevented India from going 1-0 down early on. It earned a few wry grimaces from the team in green and gold, who had swaggered into the stadium with all the confidence of being three-time champions, top seed and with a flawless 5-0 record in the group stage of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
India had just got lucky, they might have thought.
Seven minutes later, after a sustained bit of pressure, an unmarked Rani Rampal deflected a ball from Vandana Kataria towards the goal. This time, it was the Australian goalpost that prevented India from going up. India did eventually get the lead through a drag flick from Gurjit Kaur in the 22nd minute and held onto it for the remainder of the match to script possibly the greatest moment in Indian women’s hockey – a place in the semifinals for the first time in their history, and two shots at an Olympic medal.
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Any suggestion that luck was what saw India through is misplaced. This might have been a side that didn’t even qualify for the London Olympics, didn’t even win a game in Rio and lost three straight games in the group stage to hover on the brink of the precipice, but when it mattered the most, they pitched the perfect game.
“I’m not really sure if the ball had gone in (in the first shot at goal from Australia) if it would have made any difference in the match,” says former Indian coach Neil Hawgood, who had worked with the genesis of the Indian team that competed in Rio. “There wouldn’t have been any difference. Australia were just making mistakes, they were making passes not to the person but just in front or behind. And a lot of that is due to the pressure that was placed on them. Australia’s skilled individuals players were not able to deal with it,” says Hawgood.
Australia never managed a sustained spell of pressure on India. “There were like three, four, or maybe five passes and then pressure from the Indians,” says Hawgood. What that meant was that unlike Sunday’s men’s quarterfinal match against Great Britain, where the team had to defend desperately in the last quarter, India were constantly releasing pressure. “The game against Britain, now that was pressure. This time there was breathing room. I never expected that we would be going toe-to-toe with the Australians for 60 minutes,” says former player and commentator Viren Rasquinha.
This entirely unexpected switching of pressure was noticed by previous hockey coach Harendra Singh too. “The girls’ body language was different. They started pressing Australia right from the start. They showed no fear. They didn’t give any space in the midfield. And every second pass they were either tackled or intercepting. A lot of credit goes to (India coach Sjoerd) Marijne. He didn’t allow the Australians to dictate terms. Any team when they put pressure on Australia, they don’t know how to react. That was a smart move that was implemented well today,” says Harendra.
It’s one thing to go toe-to-toe with the Australians, but an entirely different thing to do it successfully without haemorrhaging goals – 13 of which Australia had scored in the group stages. That the Indians were able to do it, says Harendra, was due to the high level of fitness they now possess. “They didn’t allow Australia to dictate the pace of the match, they had higher rates of passing, receiving and conversions in the goals. It’s only easy to do when the team is fit. And both these teams are the fittest in the world. If you are fit, you are not afraid to lose the ball. Because you know you can regain the ball. If you have more oxygen in the blood, you have a better chance of taking the right decision. If you are unfit, there are more chances that you will take the wrong decision. The Indian team has been working on its fitness levels for the last eight years. That showed today. When Wayne Lombard (physical conditioning expert) started working with the Indian team, the team would have scores of 17 in the yo-yo test. Now they are having scores of 23,” says Harendra.
“I think this was as close to a perfect game as possible. This wasn’t a lucky result. This was flawless. India deserved to win.”
Hawgood says the fact that India not just absorbed pressure but returned it was also due to their mental conditioning. “It’s not about how Australia played, it was about what India did to Australia. I think it’s the mental thing, where India have improved. I think I saw the difference in the game against Ireland, where India scored in the last two minutes. If they had drawn that match, they were out. And they scored. It was their belief in what they were doing. They played team-wise not individual-wise. That was the biggest turning point of the tournament for me,” says Hawgood.
The defensive integrity the Indian team held was indeed due to the fact that it wasn’t just the defenders putting a full shift. “The kind of ball tracking the forwards were doing was unprecedented. Their one on one tackling was perhaps the best I’ve seen,” says Rasquinha.
It was tough to find a weak link in the entire squad. “All the girls who don’t normally get a lot of attention — Nikki Pradhan, Monika, Gracedeep Ekka — they had a perfect game. I think this was as close to a perfect game as possible. This wasn’t a lucky result. This was flawless. India deserved to win,” says Rasquinha.
Can they do one more? Hawgood thinks they can. “They are playing absolutely fearlessly because they have nothing to lose. I’d been messaging Sjoerd and I know he was expecting to get home about now but he has to stay in the village another four days! India are at a point now where they have nothing to lose. What were their expectations? They had hoped to make it to the quarterfinals and then see what happens. There’s this thing where you dare to dream and this morning, they would have just been dreaming. There’s no pressure on them going forward. They can just go and play. That’s what I’m looking forward to,” says Hawgood.