London, Jul 31: Indian hockey fans cannot be faulted for feeling dejected at the team's performance in the first outing at the Olympic Games against The Netherlands.
The 3-2 scoreline in favour of The Netherlands barely tells the entire story. Beside the fact that the Dutch clinched three points and India started with zero point from the first match, a big factor is the way the India team played or did not play.
India can count themselves lucky that some breaks came their way in the second half and they managed to score those two goals, but that is just a part of the big picture. The hockey fans in India will have a feeling of disappointment at the manner in which the Indians played in what had been billed as India's return to the Olympic Games after eight years.
The gap was because India had failed to qualify for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, and just two members of the Indian hockey team were the link with the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. It will not be a big surprise if a player, making his first appearance in the Olympic Games, gets overawed by the occasion for a short duration.
But how does one explain an entire team forgetting all that had been grasped over months in preparation for this occasion. The Indian team simply did not seem to be playing in the first half against The Netherlands, who are a strong side but not of the same class that the Dutch team possessed in the past. The Indian team just about played competitive hockey for some 14-15 minutes. They were simply not there in the first half.
The first goal India conceded was a very soft one. The first goal India conceded was a very soft one. Dutch striker Robert van der Horst did well to create space and have a clear look at the Indian goal before firing from top of the circle, but Bharat Chetri, the Indian captain and goalkeeper, was expected to stop that shot.
He should have got the pad out to his left and block it. Instead, what we saw was the ball travelling past a surprised goalkeeper. The other two Dutch goals came from penalty corners and showed that Netherlands have a new generation of shooters ready to take over from Taeke Taekema, who is not playing the Olympics due to injury.
Manpreet Singh almost brought off a fine save on the low penalty corner shot from Roderick Weusthof, but failed to establish control over it and the ball went over the goal-line. There was no challenge to the rising penalty corner drag-flick from Mink van der Weerden that ended just under the crossbar and turned out to be the match-winner.
Things did look slightly different during the second session when the India eventually managed to play their own game, and what a difference it seemed to make! Even in the brief period that the Indian players came into the picture and managed to exert some pressure, they could have actually inflicted more damage.
Beside the two goals, I think the Indian strikers could have scored at least one more in that short period itself. A bit more luck could have even earned India a draw. The Dutch team did set a very brisk pace that is their hallmark, but even they seem to be having a lot of inexperienced players.
Such is the structure of international hockey these days that the top teams do not often come face to face with those in the second rung. That was essentially the reason that India and Netherlands had not played a match for a long time. And when the Dutch were drawn in the same pool as India for the Olympic competition, it was a good strategy that India did not give them a practice match during the recent tour of Europe.
(Pargat Singh represented India in three Olympic Games between 1988 and 1996. He is the only man to captain India in two Olympics at Barcelona '92 and Atlanta '96)