India produced an attacking performance of great character to beat Netherlands 5-2 in Bhubaneswar on Saturday, kicking off their first Pro League campaign in style.
Gurjant Singh scored inside 28 seconds, while Rupinder Pal Singh converted two of India's six penalty corners (PCs). Mandeep Singh and Lalit Upadhyay also a goal each, with both coming within two minutes of each other after the teams went into half-time at 2-2.
This was coach Graham Reid's first match against a higher-ranked opposition in an FIH event, and from the evidence of how India played their 60 minutes, it promises a refreshing attitude from India on the pitch.
The home side played at a high tempo, and pressured the opposition defence into mistakes with their offensive overloads. Lalit, who won the Man of the Match award, was a lively presence in the Indian midfield, with captain Manpreet Singh also doing his bit to rush Netherlands deep into their defensive third. Striker Akashdeep Singh revelled in a deep-lying playmaker's role, allowing Mandeep and Gurjant to get into great positions, and capitalise on the few openings left by the Dutch defence. India often had four to five players inside the opposition 23-metre line, and the service from the wings was outstanding too.
India would be a little worried about having taken their foot off the gas in the first half, after Rupinder Pal's first PC conversion had put them 2-0 up. Netherlands scored from their very first PC, burying it low to the right of Krishan Pathak, whom Reid started in goal and alternated with PR Sreejesh. Jeroen Hertzberger scored the equalizer with two minutes left to half-time, and the Indians were in danger at that stage of giving the advantage away to their higher-ranked opponents.
It was India's response after half-time that made them stand out. They scored twice inside six minutes, played with good pace and precision, and never allowed their opponents back into the contest. They also took all their referrals perfectly on the night, something that has been a weakness with the team in crucial tournaments in the past. Senior players like Manpreet and Rupinder Pal were responsible for most of these, calling for referrals as soon as they realised an umpiring mistake had been made.
Sunday is a new day, though, and the teams need to back up and play in less than 24 hours for their second game. Saturday produced the heaviest margin of victory on Pro League debut for any men's team, but it could come to nothing if India cannot keep up their intensity and game awareness for the second successive game. Netherlands would be hurting and will come hard at the home side, and this could prove a good test of character for Reid's team.
With the Olympics looming in about half a year, they will welcome such examinations, though.