Tokyo 2020: Chronicling Indian hockey’s worst day at the Olympics

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The Indian men’s hockey team suffered their worst ever defeat at the Olympics on Sunday, losing 7-1 to Australia in their second Pool A match. Here’s Debayan Sen’s chronicle of the match.

3:07 p.m. It’s the seventh minute. The match has thus far had the feel of two heavyweight boxers just circling the ring to suss each other out. I am just thinking back to how proficient India’s defenders seemed in their opening day win against New Zealand, when Rupinder Pal Singh whips in a beautifully disguised ball from close to the centre line, which finds young Shamsher Singh. Shamsher freezes, perhaps not expecting the Australian defence to let the ball through, and spins to try and squeeze out a reverse-stick whip, but makes awful contact with it.

Coach Graham Reid has taken along a very youthful and inexperienced forwardline, and perhaps missing a chance like this is the kind of lesson Shamsher needs to learn on the job.

3:10 p.m. India’s first penalty corner (PC) sees the goal ruled out, as Harmanpreet Singh fails to take the first shot, and then ends up dragging his reverse-hit too high, even though it hits the roof of the net. Minutes later, Australia get their first PC, and even though the first shot is saved by first rusher Amit Rohidas, the team in yellow crowd the Indian half and when a loose ball falls to a player, he smashes it hard and at an angle across Sreejesh.

Okay. Surely 1-0 between such good teams isn’t a mountain too high.

3:33 p.m. Before half-time, Australia have made this into a no-contest. India have played their role in it too, with soft turnovers, poor halting off short corners, and indifferent decision-making inside the opposition circle, where they actually match Australia for numbers for most of the game, but rarely do enough with the ball.

Australia, the top-ranked team, have shown the full range of goals in the meantime. Unforgiving drag flicks, a firm forehand on the run, and a reverse-hit that gives Sreejesh no chance. That last shot is also called the Tomahawk, a term coined in Australia, and Joshua Beltz’s goal is a perfect illustration why.

3:54 p.m. Young Dilpreet extracts a bit of revenge from the Aussies. Just before the second quarter ends, Eddie Ockenden deliberately runs across the young Indian in clear view of the umpire standing behind him, and that gives Dilpreet a green card. He comes in and dinks a slap into the net.

4:10 p.m. Any hopes of a fightback are snuffed out with the third quarter still on, as Australia earn a penalty stroke. It’s a marginal call, with the ball striking Surender Kumar, with Sreejesh diving behind him, but the video umpire reckons there’s no certain way to confirm that Sreejesh would have saved it, in which case it would have been an Australia PC.

4:23 p.m. Australia put in their seventh. Sreejesh comes out to deny Tim Brand, as a careless India are unlocked by a superb lofted pass from deep inside Australia territory, but Brand sees him coming. He checks his run, feints to the left and then wallops the ball past Birendra Lakra. Sreejesh takes a moment inside the net to catch his breath. This sucker punch has just summed up a surreal Sunday at the Games for India.

4:30 p.m. This is India’s first match on the North pitch, which might explain the PC wobbles. Convert even a couple early on, and India are ahead and setting the tone for the game.

India still have Spain, Argentina and Japan to play. All ranked lower than India, but each of which can be a handful when they are switched on fully. Only the top four make the quarters, so in theory a win on Tuesday against Spain will set India up beautifully to advance. Further good news, this game takes them back to the South pitch, where their PC conversion against New Zealand was almost flawless.

However, the younger players in midfield and attack have to take greater responsibility. The chances have to be converted at this level, and Reid will remind them of that ahead of Spain.

The hockey players are luckier than many athletes at these games, in that an off day for them sees them out of the competition that very day. India must learn that lesson and eliminate all the errors from their game.

And for the rest, there’s always the wise words of Olympian Viren Rasquinha, which end with the most befitting emoji for this Sunday.





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