Hockey Pro League: India begins campaign with 5-2 win over Netherlands

Rupinder Pal Singh scored twice as India recorded a comprehensive 5-2 victory over Netherlands in the first leg of the FIH Pro League on Saturday.

Indian men's hockey team celebrates after scoring the fifth goal against Netherlands at the Kalinga Stadium on Saturday.   -  SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

A 13th second goal in modern hockey is a rarity even among rookies. India got one against World No. 3 Netherlands here on Saturday to kickstart its Pro League campaign. It was the first of five India struck in its 5-2 win against the Dutch here, a result even the most ardent fans would have predicted only with extreme caution.

It was the fastest-ever goal by India, overshadowing Ajit Singh’s 15th second strike against Argentina at the Montreal Olympics in 1976. It came against a full-strength, well-prepared, on-the-offensive Dutch side that is looking to break its Olympic gold jinx at Tokyo. It was scored by a man – Gurjant Singh – who had forced his way into the side after more than year.

This was India’s first competitive game against a team ranked higher since the 2018 World Cup quarterfinal game against the same opponent. Through 2019, the team spent more time training than actually competing. That seemed to have born fruit for Graham Reid and his charges.

The quick goal – courtesy a speedy run from Mandeep Singh and his give-and-take with Gurjant – and the aggressive start was not the only thing different in this Indian side. The entire structure of play was unlike what was seen the last time around. Reid had said he was not one to sit back and protect a lead and the team mirrored his philosophy. The opener only led to India increasing pressure on the Dutch defence and it finally came off when Rupinder Pal Singh flicked to a 2-0 lead.

Highlights : India 5-2 Netherlands

The Dutch gradually came back together in the second quarter, levelling scores by the end of it and appearing to get control of the game. Both coach Max Caldas and Reid admitted it was the best period of play for the visitor but the two-goal cushion upfront helped India go into half time with a clean slate.

The technical things India did differently on Saturday were small but significant. The passes landed more precisely. Rupinder said later that the team had worked on pre-scanning the personnel on field split seconds before actually passing. The players seemed to get the balance between holding the ball long enough to control it but not too long to lose the advantage. The Dutch failed to find the momentum or the opening to counter India’s charge.

The air was used more to release pressure than random passing. Controlling the midfield was the key and Manpreet, Vivek Prasad and Lalit Upadhyay did so well. The biggest advantage for India was its referrals. In a game as fast and subjective, India got every one of its five reviews correct, four of them resulting in penalty corners and two in goals.

Both sides, though, are aware it is just the beginning of a long season. Sunday’s second game would be a sterner test.

The result:

India 5 (Rupinder Pal Singh 2, Gurjant Singh, Mandeep Singh, Lalit Upadhyay) bt Netherlands 2 (Jeroen Hertzberger, Jip Janssen).
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