Breda (Netherlands): When Surender Kumar held the ball in the Indian striking circle in the first quarter with Argentina exerting pressure, the full back didn't just flick the ball away to safety, he looked straight at Lucas Vila and without batting an eyelid flipped the ball through Argentine's legs for Harmanpreet Singh to clear. Argentina at that moment knew they had a worthy opponent.
During the course of the match, the Olympic Champions played catch-up as India displayed an ocean of calm, oodles of confidence and a penchant for creating surprising moves that won them the intriguing contest 2-1.
More importantly, it was a statement that made many in the hockey fraternity at Breda sit up and take notice. India's victory cannot be classified just as a 'big win', it also showed the former Olympic Champions' intent to climb, albeit step-by-step, from their 6th position in the world of hockey.
After Saturday's 4-0 win over Pakistan, coach Harendra Singh had said, "With due respect, the tournament begins with the match against Argentina." It is a truism in the world of hockey that the big teams are " Argentina, Holland, Belgium and Australia " with three of the four teams in India's group.
Harendra is not wary, "I am looking forward to the matches. We learn every day. Every match is a step forward," he said.
Ramandeep Singh's injury had disturbed the team formation and when Lalit Upadhyay played as the lone ranger upfront backed by a phalanx of four attacking midfielders, including Sardar Singh, Harendra was listening to his instincts. Argentina hates back-pedalling and do not like looking over its shoulder. Neither they have tasted too many defeats from teams below them in the pecking order, especially in the last year.
However, in this match, Lalit chased the ball and did more off-the-ball running, to leave Argentina's defender Pedro Ibarra, resembling a plucked hen at the end of 60 minutes.
Argentina did the initial press. They used the flanks to stretch the Indian defence. However, Birendra Lakra, Harmanpreet, Surender and Varun Kumar stood firm. Their structure was good and India avoided penalty corners as well. Argentina's dragflicker Gonzalo Peillat, a nightmare for most teams, in his last match played against Sardar-led India at the Azlan Shah scored a hat-trick to beat India 3-2. So when a spate of three penalty corners came in the first quarter, all consecutive, it was like a story being replayed. On the third penalty corner, goalkeeper PR Sreejesh, down on one knee, took the flick on the glove, to send the ball over the post.
The first wave of attacks had been repulsed. Jarmanpreet Singh seemed the weak link; not a normal scenario for a youngster making his debut in a tournament where seasoned pros could feel jittery. However, he improved through the match, even making forays into the Argentinian half.
In the second quarter, India asserted. They took control of the midfield where Vivek made some smart changes, giving the ball to different directions, catching Argentina off guard. Sardar played a larger role; holding the ball, understanding the situation and making the pass, either to the back or a parallel. Errors were cut and not many moves were broken in the midfield as India did its bit of domination.
Harmanpreet threatened to create a move as he moved up, but a stick check from the back gave India its first penalty corner. While receiving the ball " Harmanpreet moved slightly to his right, pushed the ball in front, creating that crucial bit of space " and let loose a diagonal flick that went low giving India 1-0 lead.
There was a second penalty corner too, but Argentina defended it. Meanwhile, the midfield rotated the ball well, whilst the Olympic Champions tried to plug the gaps and kept the ball on the flanks, stretching the movement.
Off one such move, Varun sent an aerial ball deep into the Argentine territory. Forward Dilpreet Singh trapped it neatly, like a lacrosse player, switched sideways, sent the defender the wrong way and neatly tapped it to Mandeep Singh, who dived to nudge the slow ball into the Argentine goal. At 2-0, India were coasting.
India's second goal had come in the 28th minute and when it seemed that India could relax at the half-way mark, Argentina had their fourth penalty corner. Peillat showed why he is one of the world's best as his flick was like a guided missile, rising high and straight into the top corner of the goal passing the Indian defenders, who simply watched the ball in awe.
At 1-2, Argentina was breathing again. India knew the challenges in the third and fourth quarter.
The Indians mixed it up in the third quarter. They had five circle entries with two shots on goal. Argentina had three with one shot on goal. India could easily have increased the lead but Argentina's goalkeeper Santiago Tomas saved consecutive shots from Dilpreet and Mandeep. India was rattling the Olympic Champions, creating moves with two-three players involved in the execution from midfield to striking circle. The game was being stretched across the width of the pitch. Argentina wasted a fifth penalty corner after Peillat fired it wide.
The fourth quarter was tense. Both teams minimised errors and reduced irrational decision-making. However, with six minutes to go for the final hooter, India had a yellow and a subsequent green saw Surender go out. For a while, India were down to nine men as they back-pedalled, but the possession remained good. The determination of not only clearing, but also passing the ball parallel to spread out players, ticked off valuable seconds.
Argentina pushed for an equaliser having eight circle entries to India's five. Vila, the wily Argentinian forward, found the space and scooped towards the Indian goal, but Varun cleared it off the line. India was playing well ahead of the circle. They inter-changed positions inside the circle catching the ball and clearing to well-placed players. They weren't just blind flicks that could start off an Argentinian attack. The intention was not just to clear, but to initiate possession and if possible create a counter.
The win gives India six points after two matches with World No 1 Australia, Olympic silver medallists Belgium and hosts Holland still to play; challenges that this team should relish, irrespective of the result.
After the match, Harendra said, "The good thing is that the boys are following the plan and also understanding what is required of them."
Before the start of the mach, a wonderful gesture by the team saw the captain's armband being handed over over to former skipper Sardar, who was playing his 300th international. In modern day hockey, reaching 300 matches is a landmark or as Harendra said, "classifies you as a true legend."
Sardar, who was once again mobbed by the Indian fans was grateful that he had played 300 internationals and thanked the team for offering him the armband. "In the morning at the hotel, the team gave me a signed shirt and it's a moment that I cannot forget."
Harendra also said that he had written down a message on the team board " 'the lion will hunt today' " a kind of commemoration for the occasion.
Harendra is realistic that the next three games could be baptism by fire for him as a coach and the team as well.
With a smile he said, "It's an opportunity to try and infuse some fresh ideas into our play." " a philosophy that has served the Indians exceedingly well so far.