Balwant Singh, India's silent hero

Balwant Singh must like playing against Macau. By now he must also like coming on as a substitute. India needed him at the Estádio Campo Desportivo in Macau in September; they needed him again on Wednesday at the Kanteerava stadium in Bengaluru a month later. Without his impact, India would probably have not qualified for the AFC Asian Cup for the first time since 2011 and for the fourth time ever.

On a rainy evening in Bengaluru, locked 1-1 against Macau and with half an hour to go, Balwant made that perfect run, that perfect pass. With the Asian Cup qualification on the line, it calmed the nerves and gave India the lead.

Not even considered for the Indian team in his twenties, when he used to terrorize the opposition in the I-League, Balwant, now 30, has had four India appearances in three months, with three goals and one assist. One of those assists gave India a 2-1 lead in Bengaluru. His two goals away in Macau -- India's previous Asian Cup qualifier game -- after a goalless first half gave the team three points. Another of his goals was scored in a friendly; it was a winner. He was a second-half substitute in all three games. India won all three games. Talk about impact.

"Balwant, he did the exactly the same thing in the last game when he scored two goals [against Macau]," India coach Stephen Constantine said. "It is a bit disappointing that he didn't score [today]. 'Look,' I told him, 'you have to score two goals, otherwise you are considered a failure.'"

Needing a win to qualify -- and with only about 4,000 singing in their support at the Kanteerava -- things weren't going right for India after the first half. The rain was incessant and the crowd moaned as the hosts conceded on the cusp of half-time.

In the first 20 minutes, there were crosses from the right and crosses from the left as India launched attack after attack. Sandesh Jhinghan hit wide in the second minute; Sunil Chhetri was down in the box in the fourth but no penalty was given; Chhetri was dangerous again 10 minutes later; a Jackichand Singh cross met no one; Chhetri's free-kick from the edge of the box flew over; Chhetri came close again five minutes later.

The rain didn't matter as Macau couldn't get a breather.

The reward came from an unlikely source. Rowllin Borges -- who has neither a song nor a chant in his name -- put India ahead. From inside the box, his shot took a huge deflection before going in. 1-0 and "Constantine's blue army" had broken through.

But less than 10 minutes later, a cross from the right met Macau's forward Nicholas Torrao and, boom, 1-1. A momentary lapse of concentration from India. Macau's first goal in the competition. For a moment the crowd was stunned. Pin-drop silence.

Needing only a win on the night, Balwant replaced Jackichand at half-time. He partnered Jeje Lalpekhula up front and Chhetri went to the left flank.

"He [Balwant] was crucial, he put Sunil [Chhetri] out wide, gave him more time, more space, and if you give Sunil more time, he will kick you every time," Constantine said.

The turning point of the game arrived at the 60-minute mark. Jeje got the ball, Balwant's hand went up, and in a second he was through. Jeje found his strike partner with the last defender at least a few metres away. Then it was a two-on-two situation with Chhetri on the far end asking for a tap-in. Balwant passed it perfectly and India regained the lead. The tension, palpable until then, was replaced by calm and the floodgates opened.

Four years ago, Balwant was nowhere close to playing in the Indian team. He wore Churchill Brothers' maroon -- winning the Indian player of the season award in 2013 -- but always fell short of India's blue. He did make his debut a year later -- as a second-half substitute against Bangladesh -- but nothing after that.

Now, after four caps in 2017, he is slowly becoming indispensable to Constantine's squad. The crowd even sang his name as he slowly walked off the pitch.

After the final whistle, bottles were thrown, the players celebrated and Constantine even did a dab looking at the crowd. The score read 4-1 and India had qualified for the 2019 Asian Cup. The last time they played this competition, Sachin Tendulkar was still playing cricket and Chhetri was at Chirag United. This Indian team has come far but "everything is going to be more difficult now", as Chhetri said.

"This is going to be one of the best teams in the history of Indian football," Constantine said. A history with Balwant Singh playing a small if not critical part in the journey. A silent hero among the many Chhetris of the team.