Hungry India outdo Netherlands, clinch bronze

In a see-saw battle, India came back from 2-0 down to take lead twice, and conceded goals in the last three minutes to force the contest into a shootout, which was thrillingly won by the home team. Australia later won the final 2-1 against Belgium.

India captain Sardar Singh hugs coach Roelant Oltmans after India won the thrilling encounter against Netherlands.   -  Getty Images

Rupinder Pal Singh celebrates after his strike in the penalty shootout clinched the encounter for India.   -  Getty Images

The Indian team after the win.   -  Getty Images

From being 2-0 down to taking lead twice, losing it in the last three minutes to force the game into shootout, missing the first two shots and then coming back to win 3-2 thanks to three heroic saves by goalkeeper P. R. Sreejesh – if ever there was proof needed that drama and Indian hockey go hand-in-hand, this was it. In the process, the Indians beat European champions and World No. 2 Netherlands to take bronze at the Hockey World League Finals here on Sunday.

To put the win in perspective: the last time India won a medal in a world-level event (Champions Trophy 1982), none of the Indian team players was born, world rankings hadn't come into existence and synthetic turf was still in a trial phase. A 33-year wait ended when Rupinder Pal Singh sounded the board at the Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Stadium.

Six goals in nine minutes

Six goals were scored in the last nine minutes and seven in the last quarter to turn what was, till then, a sedate encounter between the dominant Dutch and erratic Indians. The Dutch had the upper hand in every department, including confidence into one of frenzied end-to-end action. At half time, Netherlands were 2-0 up with a goal in each of the first two quarters; India struggled to find cohesion. Off-target strikers, for the infinite time in the competition, appeared to be losing the plot.

Like against Belgium in the semi-final, India came out a different team post break. There was more planning and more penetrations. It became 2-1 in the 39th minute and India began their gradual climb back into the game. But it was in the fourth quarter that the Indians finally gave the 4,000-strong crowd enough reasons to get hysterical.

It became 3-2 as India took lead for the first time in the tournament only to see Netherlands regroup and level three minutes later. Two strikes in as many minutes meant India went into the last four minutes with a two-goal cushion but then the Oranje hit back, the equaliser coming through a penalty corner earned five seconds from time.

Any other time, the Indians would have faltered; coming this close to win and not getting it in regulation time would have been reason enough to crack them up. It looked like the pattern would be followed when Danish Mujtaba and Amir Khan missed their shots but Sreejesh stepped up, saving three shots to keep India in the game and, ultimately, provide the win.

“We did not show the desperation that India did, they wanted to win more than we did,” Netherlands coach Max Caldas shrugged after the game. While India coach Roelant Oltmans insisted it was a complete team effort, there were still standout performers. Manpreet Singh was the heart that kept pumping the team to ensure there was never a break in the attack. He also orchestrated most of the penalty corners for India. Sreejesh was the wall that did not crumble despite enormous pressure from the Dutch. Even though two goals were conceded in the final three minutes to force the shootout, there was no panic.

Rupinder Pal summed up India's feelings: “This win has given us the positivity and motivation ahead of Rio. Now, we need to keep moving ahead, this is just a pit-stop, not the chequered flag.”

Later in the day, Australia stamped their authority and justified their top ranking with a clinical 2-1 demolition of Belgium to take the title. The Aussies raised their game when it mattered most, kept control of the ball, hardly allowed Belgium to sneak a look in and ruthlessly defended their citadel.

Final: Australia 2 (Matthew Dawson, Jeremy Hayward) beat Belgium 1 (Simon Gougnard); 3-4 playoff: India 5 (Ramandeep Singh 2, Rupinder Pal Singh 2, Akashdeep Singh) beat Netherlands 5 (Mink van der Weerden 3, Mirco Pruijser, Niek van der Schoot) on penalties.