It came down to this. India had to soak up 15 minutes of pressure to overcome 40 years of history. Nearly half a century of struggle, despair, failure and heartbreak at the Olympics. Decade upon layered decade of historical baggage weighing down every subsequent Indian national hockey team who tried and fell short of the last four stage of the only tournament that really mattered. Previous generations had their own ghastly rite of passage.
Now it was the term of Graham Reid's men. There was 900 seconds to go, as they desperately held off a Great Britain side that had smelled blood in the quarterfinals. A generous two-goal cushion built up early in the game through goals in the seventh and sixteenth minute, by Dilpreet Singh and Gurjant Singh, had been whittled down to one in the dying seconds of the third quarter. Now the team in red chugged down their energy drinks confident the momentum had swung decisively their way.
It certainly looked they had. Within a minute, Great Britain had earned another penalty corner, their eighth of the match. The last time they had one, they had scored. Sreejesh dived desperately to his right to make the save. The clocked ticked down to the final whistle and it seemed impossible that the Indians would hold on. Mistakes crept in. Even captain Manpreet Singh had a brain freeze, as he flew off his feet in making an interception and only earned a yellow card. India were now down to 10 men. A minute later Sreejesh was on the ground, with cramps. There was no other keeper in the squad, he would have to continue.
If this was a boxing match, India were on the ropes, their gloves in front of their face, with Great Britain whaling away at them. Eventually you thought, something would get through. The pressure was just too much for the bus to stay parked much longer. "So many thoughts go through your head then. It's (a pressure goal conceded) has happened so often before. It's happened to us in 2000 (when the Indian team missed out on a place in the last four after conceding a goal in the last 30 seconds against Poland). It's happened to this team too in the last Asian Games (where they conceded a goal in the dying moments to Malaysia in the semifinal)," says former player Jugraj Singh.
But while this Indian team bent, it didn't break. With three minutes to go, a break in the game, Nilakanta got the ball away, and he passed all the way upfront to Hardik Singh. He's 22-years-old. Too old to remember much of the 2000 heartbreak and too young to have played in 2018 at the Asian Games. Now he was waiting for this opportunity. He dribbled past the defence, and struck at goal.
Olli Payne kicked out his first shot but somehow it looped past three defenders and landed right in front of where Hardik's momentum had taken him. He took his chance and off the tightest of angles, struck the ball to the back of the net.
"This is a new side. What stood out for me was the way they had the fitness to make the most of their chances until the last minutes. If you are constantly defending, sometimes it's impossible to get out of that. But this Indian team has worked on its fitness. They were ready to grab the opportunity even when it came late in the game," says Jugraj, incidentally Hardik's uncle.
Just like that, the spell was broken. British morale collapsed. Just like that, India were through to the semifinals of the Olympics for the first time in 49 years. They face Belgium for a place in the final. They now have not just one but two shots at a medal, which would be its first in field hockey since the gold medal in 1980.
Can they get there? They have already overcome one of the biggest mental hurdles of this tournament. They face a terrific Belgian side, the defending world champions. Before they start to prepare for that match though, Jugraj has a suggestion. "They need to sit down. And thank God."