Rio 2016: Hockey Bringing the Curve Back to Indian Lips
Sreejesh Parattu (2L) celebrates with his teammates after the men's field hockey Argentina vs India match of the Rio 2016 Olympics Games. (Getty Images)
Just 3 seconds on the clock. Bang! 2-1. Germany win, India lose.
24 hours later.
2-1 again. But the result reversed. India win, Argentina lose.
If you are elated, you have every reason to be. The sport that lifts India like none other is doing well at the Olympics. But let's stop at that for now. Let's not call two wins in three matches an achievement. Let's call it a good start - just that. Let it be the stepping stone. There's lots left to do.
Hockey once used to be India's backyard to win Olympic gold medals. But now the eight-gold reminder seems diarrheal at times, for it's been 36 years we've been doing that. Not a soul considers men's hockey a practical medal hope at Rio 2016. Something, though, has changed. The team has introduced a 'but' to that statement.
India had the defending champions on a leash. The Germans were desperate. It was 1-1 until the final three tik-toks at the technical bench. Then the last-minute curse struck again. Germany scored. Skipper PR Sreejesh couldn’t leave the pitch, sitting head-down in his post.
But he and coach Roelant Oltmans have done something to this team that none of the previous combinations could. And it showed 24 hours later - the way India took Argentina head on.
The nervousness was still there - evident, visible. Argentines kept pressing. But Sreejesh didn't want to sit head-down again. One save after another, his brilliance touched a new high. And India survived a scare to win.
But this script was way off the mark at the time India brought home the wooden spoon from London 2012.
Michael Nobbs had helped India return to Olympics after the 2008 debacle. But that was about it. London was a disaster. Then Nobbs left. After him Terry Walsh. Then Paul van Ass. It was setback after setback just a year away from the Rio Olympics.
Was this a blessing in disguise? Can't call it that until India finish in the top five at Rio. From here, with two wins in three attempts, that's the bare minimum.
Beat Ireland. Almost held Germany. Beat Argentina. The script is looking tighter for the first time since 1980.
"Wonderful job overall." That's what Sreejesh called the win over Argentina.
Wonderful was the last word on his mind, or not at all, sitting under the net after the German death knell. But this man has a knack to get the team, which has time and again been accused of camps within, get behind him - together.
"You can put an arm around me, can joke with me, I am still the same," he told his mates after being appointed the skipper in place of Sardar Singh.
Sreejesh has been a hero of the team for some time.
Playing under the shadow of Sardar Singh's popularity, he broke through to champion India's 2014 Asian Games gold, 2015 Hockey World League bronze and the 2016 Champions Trophy silver. A medal of every possible colour at world stage in the space of two years got India going.
But let's return to the present, stay in it and focus on Team India - not the players within. Teams win in hockey, not the individuals.
The Rio script is looking very good, but there's still some time before the credits roll.
Netherlands are next and then Canada. A draw should confirm India's quarter-final berth, a win will make the entry sweeter.
Draw? Why? We are winning. Why think of a draw?
The way India checked Germans, the Dutch have a test on their hand - favourites they may be. But Canada, No! A Canada draw will be a disaster going into the knockouts. In this form, India should roll them over.
Experts believe a team should finish at a place where they rank. India are fifth currently - their best since 2004. Incidentally, they are playing their best as well. And incidentally, that's the group Oltmans has been targeting - the top five.
Hope it happens.
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