CHENNAI: The importance of a sporting event can be gauged by the number of casual onlookers that stop to look at it. At approximately 6.40 pm IST, people on social media politely asked the score. How many minutes remaining? The score read India 2-1 Great Britain, with about five minutes remaining. At stake was a place in the semifinals of the Olympics, a place Indian hockey hasn't been to since the 1972 Games in Munich.
After multiple attempts and failures, it finally came down to hanging on for 5 minutes when Great Britain threw everybody forward. They even had a penalty corner with India down to nine men. But PR Sreejesh diverted the goal-bound effort to safety, like he had done all day. And all tournament to be honest. He has been the silent rock behind India's rediscovering their mojo after the 1-7 loss against Australia.
With Manpreet Singh & Co under pressure with minutes remaining and just one goal in front, the Men In Blue made a spectacular jailbreak, going from coast to coast in search of glory. The first effort was repelled before the second, by an inspired Hardik Singh, sounded the board. This goal will be talked about for years to come. A pass from India's third set Hardik free with real estate in front of him. He left a lot of England players in his wake, danced one way, weaved through traffic before firing at the keeper, Oliver Payne. The ricochet fell kindly to Hardik who made space and fired an unstoppable bullet into the bottom corner.
It was the sound of lift-off. A sound of a burden being lifted, of giving themselves a chance to end 41 years of hurt, agony, heartbreak, despair and, of late, apathy. It was the sound of a baggage being removed, of a chance at matching history from an era when the extent of Indian sport started with H and ended with Y. It was the sound of finally getting things right on the grandest stage of them all. Sure, there is still the small matter of a semifinal with Belgium to come but this knockout win feels different.
The night at the Oi Hockey Stadium began so perfectly, you would have been excused if you had started dreaming as early as the 7th minute. England's Ian Sloane tried to dribble his way out of the Indian press in their own third. It was cut at the source, before Simranjeet fed in the excellent Dilpreet Singh who snuck in a cute finish through the legs of the keeper. First blood, India.
Coach Graham Reid, who has done a marvellous job in his two-plus years at the helm of Indian hockey, has gradually instructed the importance of control, even if having to concede the ball. He spent a long time on cutting out the mistakes and taking his players back to the basics during last year's lockdown. It showed. So India held back, allowed England a lot of the ball (possession stats say GB had 59% possession of the ball) and decided to soak pressure.
Such a high-risk strategy is risky and it almost proved so. Great Britain had two chances to equalise in the dying embers of the first quarters but Sreejesh was there both times just before the whistle blew. Seconds after the players regrouped for the second quarter, the possible became probable. It again originated from an England stick and the one-man Indian press of Dilpreet.
Liam Sanford tried an ill-advised pass to release a forward runner but Dilpreet intercepted the pass and fed Gurjant Singh who took his chance by slipping the ball through the legs of Payne. Before the tournament, the relatively inexperienced forward line — going into Tokyo Dilpreet had played 44 times while both Gurjant and Simranjeet Singh had been capped 47 times — invited bigger scrutiny. Yet, here were those three combining to devastating effect.
At approximately 6.45 pm, the casual onlookers wondered aloud. Who are they facing next? Are Belgium any good? What are India's chances?
Belgium are the world champions and the Olympic silver medallists but an inspired India will be a tough challenge.