How Rupinder Pal Singh got his groove back

File photo: Rupinder Pal Singh had last played for India during the 2018 Asian Games WORLDSPORTPICS/FRANK UIJLENBROEK

Bhubaneswar -- It's the little things that you observe on a field of sport, that give a subtle indication of the dynamics and spirit within a team.

Just before the final hooter sounded on an emphatic win against Russia in their Olympic qualifier, India won a penalty corner (PC) with a 6-1 score in the bag, putting them at 10-3 on aggregate. Rupinder Pal Singh, marking his comeback at a major event for India for the first time since the 2018 Asian Games, had already laid down the marker with two drag-flicks, his first major goals for India since a hat-trick in a 20-0 annihilation of Sri Lanka.

It had been 428 days, and you could have forgiven him for wanting another hat-trick to mark the occasion.

Captain Manpreet Singh walked over to him, gave him a gentle bump on the head with his chin -- Manpreet is 5'7'', while Rupinder is 6'5" -- and told him, "I know you will score this." To this, Rupinder responded with, "Yeah, but please block it first. I know I will score."

As it turned out, the ball was slipped a touch wide of Rupinder, and Amit Rohidas latched on to the ball as Rupinder put in a dummy, and smacked the ball home beyond Russia's goalkeeper Marat Gafarov. The senior player had put beside personal ambition to let one of the younger members of the team, and a local at that, savour one last dance with the Kalinga Stadium for the weekend.

It was an exclamation mark for an indifferent performance from India, and much had been discussed about Rupinder and his fellow drag-flickers' inability to score in Friday's 4-2 win. India had three experienced PC specialists, with Harmanpreet Singh and Amit Rohidas to support Rupinder. There was also Birendra Lakra in case India wanted to turn to him, but the problem was right from the source, felt Manpreet.

"Our PC work yesterday wasn't good, because we were frustrated with our service, and the ball trap. We worked quite a bit on that by analysing our videos," he said.

For Rupinder, 28, this was an important audition ahead of 2020 - India play the Pro League and later the Olympics - having been out of the team for a year. He had made the previous tour of Belgium, and scored in one of the games there, but this was a competitive fixture after a long gap.

"Our pressure on the ball yesterday was lazy, and we weren't very energetic. We were quite loose today at the start too, but the goal woke us up," Rupinder said of an Alexey Sobolevskiy goal inside the first minute that had effectively bridged the aggregate score to 4-3. "We were better after that, and the entire team played to the attacking plan that we had."

Rupinder explained that the entire team had owned up responsibility for messing up what is called the sequence in hockey parlance -- the injection of the ball from the baseline, the trap, and the eventual whirl of arms and stick that sends the projectile rocketing towards the goalkeeper.

"I wanted to keep it simple. Just go with the flow of the stick. We were frustrated at having missed so many penalty corners yesterday, and today the idea was to keep it simple. Just build on my rhythm and go with the flow," he said, explaining how the first successful PC conversion, on 48 minutes, gave him a huge boost of confidence.

"I have enough belief in my force that I can get the ball through when I flick. That was the only thing, and when the second goal came, the confidence gets into your [defensive] game as well."

Rupinder realises these two days also exposed some weaknesses that India need to work on, and he will hope to play a part in rectifying those in the time leading up to Tokyo.

"We have to improve on a lot of things, and we have nine months to go.

"The biggest thing is that by qualifying, we've done what we needed. Everything hereafter - training, sessions, and the Pro League -- are all part of the preparation."