They collapsed on their knees, faces buried in their hands, eyes red and moist. The silence in the stands, a disbelieving hush that engulfed the Kalinga stadium, and the dejected shake of the head. “Mood off kar dia,” bemoaned one fan donning an Indian jersey. “Zara iss dil ka toh sochte.”
Indian hockey’s history is littered with severe heartaches, each one more painful than the other. This one will linger for a while, though. For it brings a team that was flying above the clouds after winning the bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics crashing down to earth.
Those moments of unimaginable high under a crisp Tokyo sun now feel a world away from the lows on a breezy, nervy – and ultimately heartbreaking – night in Bhubaneswar. The gloom in the Indian dugout and the stands was an unsettling realisation that the hosts had been booted out of their own World Cup. A premature exit after New Zealand, who had billed themselves up as underdogs coming into this match, conjured up one of the upsets of the tournament in the play-off match for a place in the quarterfinal.
𝐅𝐮𝐥𝐥-𝐓𝐢𝐦𝐞: 𝐈𝐧𝐝𝐢𝐚 𝟑-𝟑 𝐍𝐞𝐰 𝐙𝐞𝐚𝐥𝐚𝐧𝐝 (𝐒𝐎: 𝟒-𝟓)
New Zealand complete 2nd half come-back and a tight shoot-out goes to the 18th attempt, where New Zealand prevail to move to the quarterfinals! #HWC2023
— International Hockey Federation (@FIH_Hockey) January 22, 2023
The Black Sticks will now stay in Bhubaneswar to face Belgium in the last 8 on Tuesday. India, on the other hand, will make a trip back to Rourkela where they will face Japan in the classification matches for the bottom half of the draw.
On this never-ending night of incredible hockey, India enjoyed a two-goal lead, allowed New Zealand to come back and make it 3-3, which forced the match into shootouts. In the tiebreaker, it was the Kiwis who had a two-goal advantage but PR Sreejesh’s heroics – the Indian goalkeeper limped off the field – dragged India back into the game when all seemed lost and took it to sudden death, where the hosts had the chance to win it twice but failed to capitalise on both occasions. Eventually, after they were out on the field for almost two hours, New Zealand finally clinched the tie in the 18th penalty, when goalkeeper Leon Hayward denied Shamsher Singh.
While Shamsher’s missed attempt was the ultimate match-defining moment, this was a collective failure of a team that never imposed itself in a match coach Graham Reid said they were ‘quietly confident to get the job done’.
There was an air of anxiety around this match right from the first whistle. The Kalinga crowd, which normally breaks into a raucous roar at a mere touch of an Indian stick, exuded a nervous energy that mirrored the jittery Indians on the field.
Heartbreak for India as they bow out from FIH Odisha Hockey Men’s World Cup 2023 Bhubaneswar-Rourkela. Here are some crucial moments from the game.
— Hockey India (@TheHockeyIndia) January 22, 2023
That tension was released momentarily when India broke the deadlock in the 18th minute with a move that started deep into their half and ended with a brisk counterattack, which was converted into a goal by Lalit Upadhyay. And when Sukhjeet Singh made it 2-0 seven minutes later with a smash from a close range, much like how Leander Paes pounced on a loose ball at the net, it looked like smooth sailing for India.
That feeling didn’t last long after Sam Lane pulled one back for New Zealand just before half time and, after the break, Greg Nicol’s team did exactly what they initially set out to do – pack the midfield and reduce their errors to a bare minimum to stop India from winning the ball near the halfway line and breaking into counterattacks.
Still, India were able to frequently raid the New Zealand ‘D’ and won a total of 10 penalty corners – including four in the space of two minutes in the second quarter and three in two minutes in the third – but the drag-flickers’ poor run continued. India threw everything they had at New Zealand but apart from Varun Kumar – who scored the third goal – none of the tricks and flicks they tried came to fruition.
The frustration of missing corners only added to India’s frustration and anxiety. They could’ve settled the match rather easily even if they converted one-third of their chances. But instead, their profligacy allowed New Zealand to make another comeback.
New Zealand’s game plan was to keep the score line close going into the fourth quarter and they managed to do just that. A goal going into the third-quarter break swung the momentum in their favour and for a major part of the last 15 minutes, New Zealand channelled their true underdog spirit as they played without any fear. India, who had much to lose, succumbed to the pressure and conceded the third goal, which levelled the scores at 3-3.
In the tie-breaker, India looked overwhelmed and daunted, clearly affected by the pressure of playing in front of packed stands that expected nothing less than a win. It led to Abhishek and Shamsher missing their attempts and if not for Sreejesh’s courageous goalkeeping, India would have lost the match right there.
The veteran goalkeeper rolled back the years with two remarkable saves. In the sudden death, he injured his leg while denying New Zealand captain Nic Woods’ attempt. Harmanpreet Singh, who could have won the match with a successful penalty, hit directly at goalkeeper Hayward. India got another chance after Krishan Pathak – who replaced an injured Sreejesh – somehow denied Hayden Phillips but this time, Sukhjeet could not find the target.
Eventually, New Zealand took their chance after Shamsher failed to convert his attempt. And as Hayward broke into an impromptu jig near the far post and the New Zealand players stormed onto the pitch in celebration, Indian players sunk to the ground.
Their 48-year wait for a World Cup medal got extended by another four years at least.