Much before the national hockey team entered The Kalinga Stadium to take on Russia in the FIH Men's Series Finals, shadows of the 2018 World Cup still lurked in and around the stadium. The hushed silence after that agonising defeat to Holland in the quarter-finals still hung in the air. It took a while for the national team to find their rhythm, the pace, the technical control and when the goals started flowing, applauded by the 6000 strong fan base, Indian captain Manpreet Singh and his boys knew it was the start of another chapter, another run, a tilt towards erasing a bit of the past, to iron out the flaws that made 2018 such a mercurial year.
In the end, the score-line of 10-0 not only marked dominance, but it also showcased the first step of a new coach, Graham Reid in his first match in India's corner in an FIH tournament.
Of course, it didn't start well. Though the Indian forwards, pressed hard, came at the Russian defence in waves, the finishing that both coach and captain had spoken of improving and making it sharp wasn't there. Mandeep Singh, Ramandeep Singh, Nilakanta Sharma and then Harmanpreet Singh with India's first two PCs were off the mark. They were dominating but looked rusty and hasty in getting onto the scoreboard.
The Russians, on the other hand, found space in the midfield and played a few balls upfront. Andrey Kuraev showed good control, Alexander Skiperskiy fell back to pick up a few balls in the midfield and then Sergey Lepeshkin saw a lovely pass into the Indian striking circle, but his scoop missed the Indian goal by inches. Krishan Pathak had been left stranded in the middle of the striking circle.
In the end, maybe, Russia taking a lead wouldn't have really mattered, except for a few bruised egos. But it proved to be a wake-up call as the Indian midfield, generous in giving turnovers to the Russians held the space better. In the 13th minute, of the first quarter, India took the lead when Harmanpreet moving up saw his pass reach Akashdeep whose shot got deflected off a Russian defender stick as Nilakanta Sharma finished off the rising ball with a deflection. As they walked off after the end of the 1st quarter, India led 1-0 but more needed to be done. Russia were still afloat.
One doesn't know what Reid told the players in the break after the first quarter. But they came back and played with purpose. Hardik Singh for all his skills can be wasteful. Now, he held the ball and played the flanks. Manpreet moved up. Vivek Sagar played in the gap between the defenders. Nilakanta Sharma moving up with pace almost resembled a forward, so many times once found him over-lapping into the striking circle. Two goals came in consecutive minutes, 19th and 20th. First, Simranjeet Singh, seizing a rebound and then flicking home and then the third goal off the third penalty corner (PC) by Amit Rohidas, the local boy.
Yet, at the break, after two quarters, a 3-0 score-line gave the performance an under-cooked look. The first quarter possession had gone, surprisingly, Russia's way. Now the Indians were dominating the space, pushing the Russians back who defended with the entire team. Lakra and Harmanpreet played up leaving Varun to clear the loose ball. Both the goalkeeper's might as well have sat on the bench. In two quarters, Russia had one shot on goal, not exactly on goal but they had made the Indian goalkeeper come out of a slumber.
The third quarter was the most rewarding. Once, India turned on the skill factor with possession and technical ability, Russia's hopes faded. They could only keep the score-line down. Harmanpreet fired India's 5th PC into the right corner for a 4-0 lead. Two minutes later (34th), Varun flicked in the 6th PC, making it 5-0. And then Gursahibjit scored after Vivek Sagar, Nilakanta and Simranjeet had built it up. Akashdeep made it 7-0 after Sumit and Mandeep had created the perfect ball. Just before the third quarter finished, Vivek Sagar deflected in a move started by Manpreet and passed by Gurinder.
Eight goals up, India had equalled the score-line they had inflicted on Russia during the 2008 Olympic qualifiers in Chile. They still had a full quarter to play. Three minutes into the fourth quarter, Harmanpreet Singh got his second goal of the match, firing in another PC as India led 9-0. Two PCs were missed after that. And then Akashdeep got his second goal of the match, a peach of a strike after receiving a pass from Vivek, he moved the ball wide and off a reverse beat the Russian goalkeeper with a shot that zipped in like a bullet.
It was a demolition job. Yet, so many times, in the past, Indian teams with high levels of skill had made heavy weather against lesser and weaker sides. Scoring against weaker sides with a full defence blocking your path it is one part of the story. The other is to keep pushing with intensity, finding little pockets of space and then creating the PC or scoring a field goal. It was the Indian captain Manpreet Singh's 250th international, the 200th also coming at The Kalinga. After the match, he said, "Hope the 300th is here too."
Graham Reid looked relieved. Not because he won the match, that anyway would have happened but that his opening match as the national coach went off well with the Indians playing themselves into the game. "Wasn't too happy with the 3-0 score-line at the end of two quarters," Reid said after the match. "Would have wanted to score more goals but I am happy."
He did say that teams are also a product of previous coaches and some very good coaches have already been here. "But I am impressed with the knowledge levels of these guys. As a coach, I can tinker about a bit. And, yes, showing consistency always would be good."
Speaking about the match, he said India played a full press match. And that in the next game against Poland, it would be similar tactics. "I don't like to change too much," Reid admitted. "But we will have to work on our game." Reid did remember that in the 2019 Azlan Shah, the Indians had beaten Poland 10-0.
Upon being asked whether he was happy with his teams' performance, he smiled and said, "As a coach, I am never happy, but I am satisfied with their performance."
Another happy man was Ramandeep Singh who played his first tournament for India after the 2018 Champions Trophy in Breda where he had scored the first goal against Pakistan. And then was ruled out with a right knee injury which turned out be a chondral fracture in the middle of his knee.
"For me, it's a dream come true," he said. "They (doctors) had said that I might not be able to play for two years. Doubts had crept in. And then the ankle injury at the National Championships gave me a fright. But I battled back with the help of the team and support staff. Playing again for the national team is being born again."
Ramandeep said he didn't feel any fear of the injury recurring. "I played well and pushed for goals and created space," he said. "I did the injections for the PCs. The goals will come, and I am confident about that. Once I find my match rhythm, it will be okay."
In a match, whose outcome was in a way foreordained, the result would feel like a small step towards creating a larger narrative. Last year wasn't an aberration. The first of many steps in correcting that has been taken.