The Argentine assault on the Indian goal and cardiac muscles back home began in the opening minutes of the final quarter. India, leading 2-0, decided to pull back their forwards, fall back to the 25-yard line and defend their healthy lead from the trenches. Sensing an opening, the opposition set up its camp near the Indian ‘D’, and the onslaught began.
The break came in the third minute, when India conceded a penalty corner, their first of the game. Goalkeeper P Sreejesh, expecting a high drag flick, was wrong-footed by a low rasping shot that crashed into the board. Argentina 1-2 India. Pressure on. Ergo, game on.
For the next few minutes, the Argentines kept slamming the ball into the Indian circle, penetrating through the right flank, creating acute angles, winning a barrage of short corners and goal mouth free hits, thwarted only by the Indian goalkeeper.
A penalty corner in the seventh minute, second in a quick succession in the last quarter, was dragged and flicked high towards the left corner. Midway through the flight, it miraculously found Sreejesh’s outstretched hand. Before the ball could come down, the goalie swatted it with the stick in the other hand. Another short corner. This one was stopped again by Sreejesh, but a stick check led to another corner. This time the drag flick found a defender on the goal-line, leading to a collective sigh of relief in Rio, that could be heard and felt by Indians watching at home.
And so it continued for almost ten minutes, like a series of jolts, high on the Richter scale, one after the other, each more intense than the other. India, who had controlled the game for the first three quarters – scoring off a penalty corner and then through a field goal – almost froze under the assault, losing possession, hitting the ball straight to the Argentine players, surviving only on Sreejesh’s brilliance and prayers.
Indians finally came out of their trance in the 12th minute, with just three left for the final hooter, and managed to spend some crucial minutes in the other half, attacking on the rebound, dribbling near the far corner, playing for time, resetting the racing heartbeats. Ultimately, they hung on to the lead, putting one foot firmly in the quarter-finals.
Had they caved in, it would have been a cruel heartbreak, the second in as many days. On Monday, after dominating the game most of the time against Germany, India conceded a freak goal just three seconds before full time, losing 1-2 and a crucial point.
A draw on Tuesday would have pushed them into a tight corner, from where they could have come out only after beating Canada, not losing to Holland and then hoping for favourable results from other matches in the group. But, the win today gives them control over their destiny. If they play well from here, India can choose their rivals – Spain, Great Britain, Australia, Belgium the likely opponents – in the first knock out game and hope to reach the semis.
Argentina was a huge psychological barrier. Not once since 2009 had India beaten them. Their rough, fast, attacking game had many in the Indian camp worried. But, that’s history now.Though India fell back in the fourth quarter against Argentina and conceded a goal against Germany just before the hooter, so far they have matched their rivals run for run, dribble for dribble. After many, many years Sreejesh, Sardar Singh and their merry band seem to belong on the world stage.
The forwards are threatening to score. The corner specialists are sounding the board regularly – so far they have scored five out of the six Indian goals. And the defenders are soaking up the pressure. If you are good at reading the signs, this portends hope.
Some of the traditional weaknesses – conceding too many short corners, not scoring off them, not being able to mark the opposition due to lack of matching physical strength – have almost disappeared. With some luck, this Indian team might just get us a medal from Rio.