It was March 26, 2013. India were playing Malaysia in the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup. The Indians, leading 2-1, had one eye on the clock: 50 seconds left. A semi-final spot was almost but sealed when the Malaysians entered the Indian circle. Sticks clanked and the umpire blew his whistle. Wide-eyed Indians craned backwards. "Penalty Stroke!" signalled the umpire. A nonchalant Faisal Sari stepped up, scored from the spot and threw a salute at the home crowd. Malaysia were into the semis, India out of it. Anything of that sort on Friday will be disastrous for Indian hockey.
"It's the most crucial match for us in recent times." India captain Sardar Singh has precisely put India's Asia Cup semi-final against Malaysia into perspective.
On Friday, India will step on the pitch in Ipoh treating it as a matter of life and death - because (a) the result holds key to India's World Cup qualification, (b) India want to be in World Cup at any cost and (c) Indian hockey doesn't want to re-live the 2008 nightmare, when they missed the Olympics.
Winners of the Asia Cup are guaranteed a place in the 2014 FIH World Cup at The Hague, Netherlands. Some FIH rules allow the fifth (Malaysia) and sixth (India) reserves to sneak through without winning the Asia Cup. But for India, the signal on the road is clear: 'Finish ahead of Pakistan and book yourself a ticket to The Hague'. In such a scenario, India would not want to leave anything to chance and qualify as Asia Cup winners.
Such huge incentives don't come without pressure, but India coach Roelant Oltmans has asked his players to "leave the pressure to him".
"I have told my players, 'if you feel pressure, give it to me. I will take it, you just play hockey'." There can't be a better way to win the trust of your players. Oltmans has done well in the short period sandwiched between Michael Nobbs's departure and the arrival of the Asia Cup. That has showed in India's unbeaten run.
Reaching the semi-finals was never in doubt for India, given the presence of easy pushovers Oman and Bangladesh in Pool B. The young Indian team - without a 100 percent fit Sardar (recovering from a viral illness) - mauled Oman 8-0 in the tournament opener and closed out the league phase topping their pool with a 9-1 demolition job against the Bangladeshis.
The only test India faced going into the semi-finals was against defending champions South Korea. But a heroic performance by India vice-captain and goalkeeper PR Sreejesh guarded India's 2-0 lead by thwarting every Korean challenge in a Man-of-the-Match performance.
India's defence has been the unlikely hero of the league phase. Defenders VR Raghunath and Rupinder Pal Singh have stood like a wall, gaining confidence from the stellar Sreejesh behind them. That confidence has rubbed onto India's penalty-corner conversion, especially in the Bangladesh game.
Raghunath and Rupinder bagged hat-tricks on Wednesday - converting six of the 10 penalty corners India earned against Oman. Rupinder went a step ahead to convert a penalty stroke for his fourth goal of the match. In fact, his rise has added stability to India's otherwise fragile defence, and in unison, the duo looks intimidating at the back and fearsome with their drag-flicks. Unexpected and somewhat ironic, the defence has been India's strength so far in this tournament.
India's forward-line - without SV Sunil, Gurwinder Singh Chandi, Danish Mujtaba - has been well served by Mandeep Singh, Ramandeep Singh and Malak Singh. The three have combined well to expose holes in the opposition's defence. The opportunistic Mandeep even went on to score a hat-trick against Oman and will be key to Indian raids against Malaysia.
But besides the 11 dangerous and unpredictable Malaysians on the field, India will be up against thousands of their fans in the stands. "We will have to play against the entire stadium tomorrow as they will have home support behind them," Sardar was once again bang on assessing Malaysia's strength. "Malaysia is a tough opponent. You cannot predict them ... But we are completely focused on our job."
For the record, India and Malaysia have met 101 times - with India winning the statistical battle with an overwhelming margin of 70-13. Eighteen matches ended in a draw.
And before India take on Malaysia on Friday, Pakistan and Korea will face off in the first semi-final.
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