Kalinga diaries - Comeback queens, the SRK factor, bouncing Sreejesh and flying bugs

Captain Rani Rampal and the Indian women's hockey team celebrate after qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics. PTI Photo/Swapan Mahapatra

Bhubaneswar -- The Olympic qualifier pitting the Indian women against U.S. was always expected to be the tighter contest, but did anybody bargain for the excitement that ensued?

India started both matches sluggishly, and made fabulous comebacks in the second half. The first match was punctuated by a smart bit of hockey rondo to retrieve a botched-up penalty corner and convert it into the first of the tie's 11 goals. That set them up for a strong second half.

On day two, it was even more creditable how India handled themselves after nearly pulling off one of the biggest chokes ever in women's hockey history. That said, credit where it's due to U.S., who actually made a contest of what seemed like a lost cause when they entered the stadium on Saturday evening. And they did it with precise planning and execution.

They pressed India hard, knowing that the hosts might want to sit back on the four-goal cushion from leading 5-1. Once they got the goals in, they realised India might change tack in the second half, and played a smarter game of containment early in the third quarter. The match got physical, and they wound up conceding a yellow card, and a green card -- so did the Indians, in fact -- but the American infringement came around the time of what turned out to be the tie-winner from Rani Rampal.

"We can't fault the team. They fought very hard, and played according to the plan," said U.S. coach Janneke Schopman. "And they fought for every centimetre on that field. I wanted more for them. They are devastated. I am devastated. But we lost the game yesterday, not today."

Sjoerd Rukh Khan Marijne

If Sjoerd Marijne's half-time speeches to his team sound a lot like Shah Rukh Khan's from his role as Kabir Khan in Chak De! India, it is probably because he is a big admirer of the 2007 film, which had Shah Rukh playing coach to the Indian women's team.

Marijne has been big on getting the players to take up more responsibility on the pitch. Check. He speaks often about getting the team to improve not just as players on the field, but also grow as people off it. Double check. And on Saturday, he came up with an improvised version of the Sattar-Minute (70 minutes) speech by telling the team at half-time that the slate had been wiped clean with U.S. scoring four goals. It was a new game of 30 minutes, and that is all they had to play for.

ESPN's Jonathan Selvaraj would also ping about this match being a perfect way to commemorate Shah Rukh's birthday [also on November 2], but I got to reading that after returning to the media centre after attending the press conference and wondered if I and Jonathan were on the exact same page.

There, I walked in, spread my arms wide, head tilted to one side, and modulated my voice absurdly to say, "Haarke jeetne waale ko baazigar kehte hain (A gambler is one who wins by losing)."

The st(r)a(n)ge entry on Friday

If you watch a replay of the four games, there was something that was off in the opening sequence of the first India-U.S. game. Rani Rampal and her team came sprinting on to the turf at the Kalinga Stadium for their big-stage debut in India, but there were no pyrotechnics from the stands placed along their entry.

The mystery was solved in a conversation with a crew member -- the pyros are built to last 45 seconds, and that necessitates both teams to sprint to their positions when coming in, with the host team entering second. U.S., perhaps down to nerves or just a lapse in communication, walked in, and the last of the streaks of gold had already fizzled out by the time Rani stepped on to the pitch.

If you saw the U.S. team hurrying in on Saturday and wondered why, now you know.

Unidentified flying objects that can enter your mouth

There are some enormous bugs in the air around Kalinga Stadium, and they get drawn further in during evening games with the floodlights on. Argentine referee Iren Presenqui found that out on Saturday to her chagrin when blowing for a penalty corner in favour of India, when her decision came to a stuttering halt as she realised there was a bug heading down her throat.

U.S. captain Katherine Sharkey was also asked if the team had acclimatised to the 'bug situation', and she revealed there was a spray the team always carried when playing. Perhaps the fireworks show at the end of the qualifiers could have been brought forward to help keep the bugs at bay -- although in these days of Air Quality Index (AQI) discussions, Bhubaneswar hasn't been scoring too high in that regard either.

Sreejesh can shake a leg

PR Sreejesh actually had a quiet time on the pitch. Indian men's coach Graham Reid had revealed that he intended to use Krishan Pathak and Sreejesh interchangeably, with Suraj Karkera as the third choice with them, over the next six months. He kept his word, with Sreejesh and Pathak sharing quarters in both games.

At the end of matches, Sreejesh would head straight for the north stand -- the PA system, with their DJ console, are there too -- and then entertain the fans with his dance moves. It is tough to evaluate Sreejesh's dancing skills, but there would certainly be a high rating on the energy scale. Apparently, his favourite music is by an artist called Gana Bala.

India return to Bhubaneswar for all of their home matches in the Pro League, starting January. The music will continue, and let's hope the team gives Sreejesh enough cause to shake a leg in celebration.