Rani, Navneet find space-time perfection as India grab crucial win in Tokyo

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It’s been a draining afternoon for India at the Oi hockey stadium. Their must-win encounter against 2018 World Cup runners-up Ireland started after an hour’s delay because of heavy rain, and the game hasn’t gone perfectly to plan.

India have played virtually the entire encounter on the front foot, but just not seen the results for it. They created 14 penalty corners (PC) in the first three quarters, but ace drag-flicker Gurjit Kaur was on the pitch for only five of those. The way hockey functions, with rolling substitutions, you are always in trouble if you depend almost entirely on one set-piece specialist. Syncing the presence of your drag-flicker with when you get PCs is a tricky balance, especially when most of them come in continuous clutches.

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India have also missed a few field goal attempts. Ayeisha McFerran, the Ireland goalkeeper, has repelled everything thrown at her, skipping out to close angles when the rare through pass slips past a packed defence. India’s circle penetrations are closing in on 30. Coach Sjoerd Marijne keeps urging his team to keep calm and give one final push.

It’s late…very late in the game when captain Rani Rampal finds a bit of room from the right. The angle is difficult from her forehand side, so she drags it across the body of her marker to pick it up on the left and whip out a low, searing backhand hit. She has stuck to the basics — slap the ball hard across the face of goal and hope that either the goalkeeper plays it off her pads high enough to win a PC, or one teammate of yours has the courage and presence of mind to attack the far post.

Luckily, Navneet Kaur has read her skipper’s intent early, and squares off against McFerran, using her upper body strength to squeeze into a little corner between her marker and the keeper’s right leg. The ball is zipped through at a good pace, and Navneet, who had earlier hit a deflection just wide after beating McFerran, has to quickly readjust her stick to find the perfect touch.

It happens in a fraction of a second. Ball on to stick, past the keeper, and low into the board behind the goalkeeper. India celebrate, but Ireland throw in a desperate referral, hoping for a backstick from Navneet.

The super slow-motion replay reveals the genius of Navneet’s speed of thought. She realises the ball is heading for the backstick, and so just cocks her wrist enough so that the only way the ball can go into goal is off the front of it, turned outward to face the far post. To control a Tomahawk pass low on the floor and execute it under the most severe of pressure is a work of art.

It is nothing less than what this team deserves. There’s still a match against South Africa to win on Saturday to book their first knockout place at the Olympics ever. But for a team that has spent nothing more than a combined month over the past 16 with families, most of it spent under Covid-induced restrictions at the Sports Authority of India campus in Bengaluru — the three points earned on Friday will feel no less than a medal in itself.



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