Hockey, just like any sport, can be a great leveller. That too all in the space of a frantic 70 minutes, punctuated by three slender breaks that act as breathers from the state of whirlwind affairs on the pitch. Just past the half-hour mark in their Hockey World League Finals bronze medal play-off against The Netherlands in Raipur last Sunday, India were staring at another meek surrender in a big tournament game. Sleek passing combined with clinical finishing - the Dutch were giving us delightful glimpses of what had been so painfully missing in the run-up to this game. There was little gamboling in the stadium aisles; just pensive faces desperately hoping for a turnaround.
And, India did not disappoint. Almost in the blink of an eye, the young Indian team flicked the turbocharge switch, racing to a 5-3 lead with two minutes to go. And, then, rather expectedly, they imploded. Harrowing memories of a similar game between the two countries from the 2003 Champions Trophy came rushing back. The Netherlands forced the game into extra time before the home side prevailed in the shootout, with goalkeeper P Sreejesh's almost paranormal reflexes and athleticism. This was one of those teetering games that make modern-day hockey both a joy, and at times, a despair to watch.
As sports watchers and analysts, we have an annoying habit of sensationalising the present, often abjectly failing to distinguish between the great and the middling. It is easy to get drunk on superlatives and conjure up heroes where there aren't any. We would do well to help the this particular performance escape that fate.
Despite its first medal at a major international tournament since a bronze at the 1982 Champions Trophy, former Indian skipper Ajit Pal Singh, earlier this week, said the team was lucky to finish on the podium. "Their performance in the group stages was pathetic. The format of the tournament was such that every team got through to the quarter-finals," says the former World Cup winner. The Hockey World League Finals, which was conceptualised only in 2012, follows a peculiar format. With eight countries in the fray, all teams are guaranteed a quarter-final place. The group games serve as a mere formality. In actuality, a team has to win just three matches to clinch the title.
But that should take little away from India's performance. In the knockout stages, India showed heart and courage, which we've been yearning to see for long. For a team that is dubiously known more for its capriciousness than brilliance, the narrow win over Great Britain - which is an emerging giant in its own right - and then The Netherlands serves as a timely reminder that Roelant Oltmans is taking India down the right road.
Former Olympian and national team coach Joaquim Carvalho says that India should take great pride in this performance. "This is a good showing. If Oltmans keeps getting his tactics right, India has a fair chance of a strong finish at the Rio Olympics next year," he says. Oltmans, in his short tenure, has tried to implement a fast-paced brand of hockey that places immense focus on organisation and defence. More important, he has stuck to the same group of players, keeping the Olympics in mind.
And, the plan seems to be working so far. Skipper Sardara Singh, drag-flickers V R Raghunath and Rupinder Pal Singh, midfielder Birendra Lakra, and forwards S V Sunil and Akashdeep Singh have forged a stellar partnership. "Having the same core group of players always helps. That way, the team can improve at a faster pace," says Carvalho. Lakra, in fact, has been one of India's more consistent players in the last couple of seasons, exhibiting deft touch and imagination in the heart of the midfield.
Among the several heroic performances in the last two games, there was one that shone brighter than any other. Sreejesh's exploits between the sticks was another reminder of his world-class quality. The Kerala goalie often bailed out of trouble a leaky defence with some eye-popping saves. However, former players feel that over-dependence on Sreejesh might hurt India in the long term. As things are, Oltmans cannot afford to rest Sreejesh; he has played every minute of India's campaign at major tournaments in the last two years.
More worrying, as Oltmans himself describes, is India's "up and down" form. Thrillingly beautiful in one game, wretched in the next - that's what the team's report card reads like after almost every tournament. Even against The Netherlands, India sprung to life only in the second half after largely chasing shadows in the first. And, when they were in the ascendancy, they conceded twice in the last two minutes. Oltmans would definitely love some more consistency.
In spite of frittering away chances against Argentina and Germany in the group stages, it was refreshing to see on display India's renewed fitness levels. They stayed with the enemy till the end - ample proof of how well-conditioned this Indian team is. Oltmans also showed his tactical acumen, making some shrewd rolling substitutions.
With Rio de Janeiro just around the corner, Oltmans will look to plug the gaps in a team that does have promise. As Carvalho says, if India can keep at it, anything can happen. "Once you reach the semi-final, it's all about one game. India needs to prepare for that." India's highest finish since winning gold at the 1980 Moscow Games has been fifth. Oltmans would be keen to change that. It may be a tad premature to start dreaming but Indian hockey finally offers us some hope.