Weighed down by baggage and pressure, India loses it way

There is hope yet for Indian hockey. No, I am not talking about its chances of making to the semifinals of the Hero Honda FIH World Cup but of the fast that it has not run out of support from fans. The writing was on the wall midway through the match but the spectators were steadfast in their support for the Indian team.

Indeed, it was a poignant sight that will be etched in my mind for a long time. India had lost its second successive match by a 2-5 margin and yet many hundreds of its disappointed fans lingered on to cheer the team. The warm gesture after India was outplayed by Spain on Thursday night showed that the sport will find support in the country.

The stadium was packed well before India’s key contest with Spain was due to start and it was quite an experience again, hearing the crowd sing the National Anthem as one and with pride. But its throaty support to the home side was not good enough to lift the side to be competitive until it was too late.

Clearly, there were not just 15 Spaniards working overtime to stop India’s dream of finding a winning sequence. The home team took the ground with enormous baggage – for 35 years and eight editions, their predecessors had tried and fallen short of the semifinal at the FIH World Cup – and this side was expected to alter the course of Indian hockey’s destiny in one tournament.

This was the match that could pitchfork India among the contestants for the semifinal berth; this was the game that would set it up for a battle with the vastly improved England; It was not going to be easy, especially since Spain has always been a tough opposition and since it has been a while since India has played opposition such as Australia and Spain in the span of 48 hours.

The pressure was simply too enormous. Shivendra Singh’s enforced absence due to a two-match ban left the team without sting. Besides, hard as the young Gurwinder Singh Chandi tried to show that he belonged in this league, India’s lack of strike power upfront came through clearly. It was not long before the domino effect was felt at the other end.

India’s most consistent Indian players – Dhanjay Mahadik and Bharat Chikara – made uncharacteristic mistakes in defence and left the team staring down the barrel of the gun at the end of the first half.  The two goals that the side conceded were both defensive lapses that let Albert Sala and Pol Amat score unhindered.

It was always going to be difficult for India to play catch up, even after Sandeep Singh scored four minutes into the second half. Spain answered the challenge with two goals in as many minutes and it was all over bar the shouting. Sandeep Singh scored a second time to spark some hope but Spain was in control and pumped in a fifth goal towards the end to seal victory.

For a squad that boasted of three drag-flickers, India’s penalty corner conversion rate – scoring just once from the six chances – left it bruised. Sandeep Singh found the target once and caused the crowd to find its collective voice one more time but he will be the first to admit that the Spanish goalkeeper Francisco Cortes was more than equal to the task of denying him.

It is not as if there were no positives; there were some. The Indian side mounted a steady fightback in the second half and kept pressing for goals – even if it came up against resolute defence. The team was able to keep fighting till the end, something that we have not known many Indian hockey sides to do.

Yet, in the end there was disappointment for the vast majority of the 15,000 hopeful fans who packed the wonderful stadium and many trooped toward the exit gate when Spain scored its fifth goal with three minutes left. Yet, the sight of a few hundreds staying back to cheer the Indian team was heartwarming. There is hope yet for Indian hockey.

This piece was written for www.stick2hockey.com