New Delhi: Three months after Indian hockey touched the nadir of a last-place finish at the Olympics, the dimple in the cheek has returned. In short, the smiles are back - with two successive wins over England and New Zealand on India's Champions Trophy comeback.
Invited to the tournament as a wild-card entry, India ran the world number four (England) and six (New Zealand) wild with convincing 3-1 and 4-2 wins to go top of Pool A and put all the tournament math into disarray.
India went to the Champions Trophy - the third biggest hockey tournament after the Olympics and the World Cup - after Hockey India bit the bullet by dropping some big names. Bharat Chetri, Sandeep Singh, Tushar Khandker, Shivendra Singh and Ignace Tirkey were all axed following the Olympics debacle where India finished last in the 12-team competition.
But besides that, the welcome change - appearing overnight to the naked eye - hasn't come without getting back to the drawing board, and that is being brought to light here by the former India Olympian Jagbir Singh.
The indispensable Sardar Singh
People say Sardar is the team's backbone. I call him the team's entire body. If he is standing like a pillar, he is supporting the defence. If he is attacking, he is providing an edge. Whenever he moves, the Indian team moves. But this is actually a worry as well. Sardar has played the entire duration in the two matches India have won. What if he is given a rest for 5-10 minutes? We have to look at this because at some point he too will need rest.
Attacking with support
Attackers are outnumbering the opposition's defence. The youngsters playing in the first line of attack have been outstanding in re-tackling and interception. We attack in 1-2 or 1-2-3 and then move back with speed to snatch the ball in case we lose possession. Manpreet [Singh], Sardar and Birender [Lakra] are doing this exceptionally - moving up and down very well, attacking together and supporting each other.
Defence playing responsibly
[VR] Raghunath and Rupinderpal [Singh] are realising their responsibility considering goalkeeper PR Sreejesh [out injured] is not there and PT Rao is new in the goal. Nobbs has realised that our defence is weak. The defenders are moving in support, which has helped reducing the unforced errors. We haven't seen *double-tackle or stealing from our defenders, but double-tackle can be seen now, which is very positive.
The most heartening aspect
The best part about these comeback wins is the progress. We finished last in the Lanco Super Series and lost to England there before coming back to beat them in the first match of the Champions Trophy. That tells me the youngsters have the willingness to learn and not repeat their mistakes.
Where does this start lead us?
India's two wins so far have come against an English team that is pretty young and an experienced New Zealand outfit. And the boys played without pressure since it was the start of the tournament. Now that they have won to progress, the expectations will rise, leading to pressure. The team that handles that well will be the winner.
What is double-tackle? The defenders need to set up a double tackle - the high defender channels the attacker towards the line and then runs next to him to prevent him from pulling inside. The second defender makes a strong block tackle.