There was no better example of why Hardik Singh is the lifeblood of the Indian men’s hockey team than what happened in Bhubaneswar on Sunday.
In the FIH Hockey Pro League game against the top-ranked Netherlands team in the world, the vice-captain was at the center of most of his team’s victories. India seized the lead via Hardik in a thrilling match between two elite teams, and skipper Harmanpreet Singh later equalized via a PC that his deputy won. The sides shared a point apiece in a 2-2 tie until PR Sreejesh showed up with class in the shootout, which gave India an extra bonus point.
As Dutch coach Jeroen Delmee described it before halftime, the game was more like “cat and mouse” than two sides going all-out offensive. However, the game reached a satisfying climax before India prevailed in the end.
Although there were a few concerning errors, India’s head coach Craig Fulton was optimistic going into the game that his team would match up well against the world No. 1 and that, all things considered, the South African would have been satisfied with what he witnessed.
India’s beating heart, Hardik
Hardik’s injury at the World Cup a year ago proved to be difficult for India to recover from. After losing to New Zealand in the pre-quarterfinals of the competition, he was devastated, and subsequently so was India.
His commanding presence in the middle of midfield on Sunday served as just another reminder of how much India missed him at the time. The Dutch had a great start to the game, trying to use long passes, both aerial and ground, to take the Indian defenders off guard. India had to hold on with some excellent deep defense for the most of the first quarter as the ball was pinging off their sticks with an amazing rhythm.
The first goal came from one of those lengthy passes that India managed to break down. To locate Sukhjeet Singh, Hardik raced with the ball more than half the length of the field. With the ball in hand, the forward passed it back to Hardik.
Playing with control is one of Fulton’s guiding principles, and Hardik’s finish exemplified that. With a little touch, he guided the ball into the net like he was passing it to a teammate. However, this one beat Dutch goalkeeper Maurits Visser, who was taken aback by the ball’s sharp angle.
In opposition to the flow of play, India took the lead thanks to a combination of strong defense and one brilliant moment by Hardik. Five minutes into the second quarter, Hardik then made a fantastic steal by reading a long pass from a Dutch player with ease. A few minutes later, he used a deft direction shift and three-dimensional talent to earn an India penalty corner with a superb dribble.
However, the Dutch are the best team in the world for a reason, and they took the lead with goals either side of halftime. Jip Janssen scored from the Penalty Corner after Manpreet Singh’s diving interception at the conclusion of the second quarter was judged to be intentional ball movement behind the byline.
India lost control of the ball more often in the beginning of Q3, despite Fulton’s statement that his team needed to improve at preventing turnovers. One such midfield error led to a possession phase for the Netherlands that ended in a PC. Among all the players in the circle, Koen Bijen responded the fastest this time to grab a rebound.
Hardik kept India moving ahead even throughout a lackluster third quarter. India got things going in the last quarter, and their boldness would pay off in the end. A lost ball in the Netherlands’ offensive third was quickly picked up by Hardik, who forced a push from the Dutch defense. With two minutes remaining, Harmanpreet quickly referred this to the video umpire, and India had a PC.
Sreejesh once again produces
Prior to the game, Coach Delmee’s only hope was that his team would need to prevent India from having penalty corners, but after playing excellent defense up to that point, it would turn out to be the game-winning play. The drag flickers of India weren’t having the greatest of times until this particular incident, after a strong night of set pieces versus Spain. On his 200th appearance for India, Harmanpreet scored the equalizer with his greatest drag flick of the evening after Hardik moved up to inject.
With 2:43 remaining in the game, India replaced their goalie and equalized the score. But soon after, their lucky charm PR Sreejesh returned to the field and, in the last seconds, made a brilliant save to send his team into a shootout. There, he would excel once again, first with an incredible reaction stop before maintaining his ground to deny another Dutch goal. Sreejesh, who is used to making last-minute changes, made sure that India would win this weekend (after a strong performance against Spain as well) to serve as a timely reminder that he is still the primary goalie at the beginning of the Olympic season.
Hardik remarked after taking home the player-of-the-match trophy, “We showed the standard where we want to be.” That feeling is reflected well in the Pro League’s first two games, having scored five points each.
India 2-2 Netherlands, with Jip Janssen (30′), Koen Bijen (39′), Hardik Singh (13′), and Harmanpreet Singh (58′) being the scorers at normal time.