‘Keepers the key as India defeat world champions Belgium in FIH Pro League

Mihir Vasavda
Hockey Pro League, Hockey Pro League India vs Belgium, India vs Belgium Hockey Pro League, Indian hockey team, Hockey news, sports news, Indian Express

In the 29 matches Belgium played in 2019, they scored 103 goals. (Twitter/Hockey India)

The last 10 seconds played out the same way as the first 10: with Belgium taking a shot at the Indian goal. And on both occasions, they were denied; towards the end by PR Sreejesh, and in the opening seconds by Krishan Pathak.

It was, in a way, fitting that India’s goalkeepers — who played alternate quarters — had the first and last say in Saturday’s FIH Pro League encounter. For, they were the sole reason India notched up a win over the world champions and world number 1 side. The otherworldly performances by Pathak and Sreejesh guided India to a 2-1 upset over Belgium, a team they hadn’t defeated in the previous 10 matches.

Coaches and players of most teams have insisted that the scoreline in this season’s Pro League hardly matters. But in a match where a relentless Belgium routinely exposed India’s defence, chief coach Graham Reid’s biggest takeaway from Saturday’s win would be the performance of his goalkeepers; especially Pathak, because Sreejesh has routinely pulled off such performances over the last decade.

Till Saturday, Pathak’s only real involvement in national colours was as dubious as it was meme-worthy. It came in the Azlan Shah Cup final last year, when South Korea's Lee Nam-yong scored one of the most audacious goals we’ll ever see in hockey — in a one-on-one scenario, lifting the ball with his stick and dinking it over the stocky goalie, who stood there helpless and embarrassed.

That goal, despite the attacker’s brilliance, only added to the growing chorus against Pathak. He was among the handful few from the 2016 Junior World Cup-winning squad who graduated to the senior team. But his place has always been under scrutiny, with many feeling he has not justified his position as Sreejesh’s understudy. And after an average weekend against the Netherlands last month, it wouldn’t have been a surprise if Pathak’s place in the squad became untenable if he had another poor outing. It was in this context that Pathak started Saturday’s Pro League match against the top-ranked side in Bhubaneswar. And in the face of pressure, the Nepalese-origin, Kapurthala-born goalkeeper produced his best performance for the national team so far as India maintained their 100 per cent record in the competition.

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Allies in the goal

It was a victory made possible solely by the goalkeepers. Sreejesh has orchestrated far too many jailbreaks in the last decade, but it’s often been on his own. On Saturday, Pathak was his able ally. The 22-year-old withstood a barrage of Belgian shots in the first and third quarters, pulling off some stunning saves. In the second and fourth quarters, it was Sreejesh who continued to frustrate the Belgians.

One would be hard-pressed to think the last time both Indian goalkeepers were in such inspired form, especially against a top-quality opponent like Belgium, who arguably have the most potent attack in world hockey right now.

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In the 29 matches Belgium played in 2019, they scored 103 goals. The world champions have continued to score at the same average — roughly four goals a match — in the New Year as well. In the four matches they played before Saturday’s game against India, they scored 15, including four against the mighty Australians in Sydney a fortnight ago.

On any other day, Belgium would have scored four or five goals in the first half, given they had 13 shots on goal. That tally nearly doubled by full time, but apart from the one time via a penalty corner in the third quarter, Belgium were unable to beat the Indian goalkeepers.

Sreejesh, who has grown in confidence in the last 12 months after a below-par 2018, once again showed why he is the best player in the Indian team at the moment. Because of his commanding presence, India look a more secure unit when he is around. He barks out instructions, organises the defence and makes sure players do not drift out of position while continuing to set high standards in goal with his fearless rushing and ability to cover angles.

Pathak is half of Sreejesh’s size and an introvert. But on Saturday, he showed why selectors, coaches and even his teammates have pleaded his case for the last 18 months. He threw himself around and was not afraid to commit himself.

It would concern Reid that India’s defence was split open by Belgium so easily and so often. He has less than 24 hours to sort that out. Else, India will hope for a similar performance from Pathak and Sreejesh.