Four minutes into the second half, the strap on the right pad of Belgian goalkeeper Vincent Vanasch came undone. Umpire Francisco Vazquez blew the whistle and action stopped. Vanasch bent down slowly and deliberately to fix his kit. In the Indian dugout, former Australian international and current Indian assistant coach Chris Ciriello fumed. From his perspective, there was nothing wrong with the Belgian's pads. "I can tell for a fact that the goalkeeper unclipped his strap. He was just trying to break the rhythm of the game and slow things down. He had to," Ciriello would say after the game that would eventually end in a 2-2 draw.
Vanasch is the last person you might expect to being flustered. He's was the FIH goalkeeper of the year for 2017 after all. Yet if Ciriello is correct, he had done the equivalent of a boxer spitting his gumshield in the middle of a pummelling to force the referee to call a break in play.
Vanasch's desperation might have been understood in the context of the game. India had entered the Belgian circle three times already, looking steadily more dangerous. The third entry had been particularly worrying. It was generated when Harmanpreet Singh scooped an aerial ball from next to the midfield, over the heads of the Belgian defence, right to Simranjeet Singh on the baseline, who then flicked it to Dilpreet Singh some six yards from the goalmouth. It had taken an excellent save from Vanasch to block the resulting attempt on goal but amidst the capacity crowd's raucous cacophony and the fact that the Indians had just discovered a novel approach to their goal, the Belgians were clearly rattled.
It was a dramatic shift from how things had been just four minutes earlier in the game. Belgium had gone into the break just a single goal up but had seemingly controlled the game. India had spent a half hour chasing red shirts. When they did have the ball then never seemed to get any sort of offence going. Over the course of the half they entered the Belgian circle all of two times. This wasn't very surprising considering they only passed the ball to its intended target just 58 per cent of the time, conceding 19 turnovers in all.
The pregame predictions seemed to be holding true at that point. They were that while India would persist in playing in the same attacking mentality that had given them a lopsided 5-0 win against South Africa in their opening game of the Hockey World Cup, the structured Belgian defence would choke out any actual goalscoring opportunity and frustrate the Indians into conceding turnovers. Then all they had to do was wait for the opportunity for counterpunching to present itself and convert those chances when they did get them. It was an art Belgium had perfected over the past few years and it had served them excellently.
India meanwhile seemed to be falling into all the same traps too. They were caught up with trying to force an opening goal. When that didn't seem to come through structure, they tried doing it single-handedly -- a case in point being Dilpreet's solo attempt on goal from the right flank in the 20th minute rather than passing to an unmarked Lalit Upadhyay at the left post.
Coach Harendra would speak calmly about the incident later -- "we are trying too hard to score," he would say -- but at the moment he was livid.
But Harendra would also would shuffle up his playing structure to get the game to where he wanted to play. It was a bold plan. Simranjeet and Lalit were pushed up almost to the baseline. Midfielder Manpreet Singh was moved up ahead too. Instead of trying to rush past the Belgians, Indians either passed parallel or lofted the ball overhead.
Their opponents were caught off guard. "It took us seven minutes before we got into any real pattern," Belgian coach Shane McLeod would admit after the match.
But his side were at fault too, committing many of the same mistakes that India did in the first half. "I'd say we made things a lot easier than we should have for India," says Belgium's Tom Boon after the game. "When we got the ball we simply tried to run past the Indians and that is simply something you can't do."
It was a quarter that was all India. After two circle penetrations in the first half, they had 10 in the third quarter alone. Within three minutes of Vanasch's attempt at distraction, India would earn three penalty corners. The last of those would result in a penalty stroke to level the match. Within two minutes of the fourth quarter, India would score again through Simranjeet. With under five minutes to go, Belgium would take their goalkeeper out and the risk would pay off courtesy an equalizer from Simon Gougnard.
It is a result that would suit Harendra for it puts his side on top of their group and within a game of a direct quarterfinal sport. Yet the result was a reminder for both India and their opponents of just how mercurial this side could be. They might have been all at sea for half an hour. However, it had just taken one quarter to show just how riveting they could be. And unrelenting enough to force a bit of schoolboy gamesmanship from one of the best goalkeepers in the world.