For 59 minutes of their second game at the 2016 Olympic Games, the Indian men’s hockey team had wrestled defending champions Germany to a standstill. But with fewer than four seconds to go and the score deadlocked at 1-1, Germany slapped a hopeful ball into the Indian ‘D’ in a last desperate attempt to find the game winner. The Indian defence fatally switched off and up popped Cristopher Ruhr in front of goal with enough space to deflect he ball past India captain P Sreejesh and in off the far post.
Ruhr took off down the field roaring in delight. His teammates ran after him and mobbed him. The India players were in shock and stared blankly into space. When the final hooter sounded three seconds later, Sreejesh slumped at the back of the goal with his head down.
A few minutes later, team coach Roelant Oltmans gathered his players around him for a pep talk. They still looked shattered. They did not deserve to lose this game.
But while the final result was a punch to the gut, the match itself was a joy to watch. After more than a decade of despondency, here was an Indian hockey team that was not shrinking on the biggest stage in the sport. Here was an India team that played with purpose and control and that was going toe-to-toe against the two-time defending Olympic champions.
There was no drooping of heads when Germany took the lead in the 18th minute. In fact, it was the opposite. The goal seemed to rouse India and they ended up dominating the second quarter. Nikkin Thimmaiah and Sunil Sowmarpet put their heads down and ran at the German defenders, pushing them on their heels. There was twinkling stick-work from Akashdeep Singh and Raghunath and rugged defending at the back from Rupinder Pal Singh and Harmanpreet Singh.
When Sunil won the first penalty corner of the match in the 23rd minute with another blistering run into the German circle, the anticipation was palpable. Rupinder would not disappoint. His blistering shot gave Germany goalkeeper Nicolas Jacobi no chance as it flew past him.
India were level and Germany were rattled. It was surprising and thrilling. One wanted India to keep playing at this level, but at the same time you wondered if they could. The answer is yes, they could. They restricted Germany to just one penalty corner, while winning four themselves. They harassed Germany down the flacks. They dribbled and weaved and blocked and tackled. They calmly broke up German attacks and counter-attacked with speed and discipline.
There were plenty of chances too. Nikkin failed to get his stick on the ball as Jacobi kicked it away. Akashdeep then slapped a shot just wide. In the third quarter, Jacobi had to stick out an arm to stop Rupinder scoring yet another penalty corner goal. In the fourth, Sardar Singh flashed a deflection just wide. It was heady stuff.
With each attempt, the realisation grew that India might even win this match. If they did, it wouldn’t have been a fluke or a lucky result either. They would have deserved it. They were not only living up to the pre-tournament hype, they were exceeding it. All that was missing was the final touch that would seal the upset.
It was not to be, of course. Germany made India pay for their profligacy in front of goal, but as much as the defeat hurt, it could not undo what came before. This was an exhilarating team performance from India.
Admittedly, they are not the finished article. Conceding late goals is an old failing that continues to punish them. In a post-match interview, Oltmans said the team needs to learn to stick to their gameplan under pressure and that individual players have to stop doing their own thing “when the tension gets high”.
“The fact that we played so well is encouraging, but in small areas we still have to understand what is needed to bring a result,” Oltmans said. “We have three more matches to win and make our birth in the quarter-finals.”
The way this India team is going though, you’d bet on them to do just that.