When Varun Kumar scored India's opening goal against Argentina on Thursday, he would have loved to wheel away and celebrate like his idol Cristiano Ronaldo.
Except that, in keeping with the overall clumsiness and slice of good fortune in his drag-flick, what he got was an inadvertent shoulder of the Argentina first rusher in his face, dragging him down towards the blue turf at the Oi hockey stadium. Varun had actually made a great connection with his penalty corner (PC), but a deflection had squared up goalkeeper Juan Vivaldi, making it almost impossible to adjust his gloves in good time.
Varun kept his eyes on the trajectory of the ball, though, and as he broke his fall, his teammates gathered to congratulate him. This was Varun's debut game at the Tokyo Olympics, and he had scored moments after rescuing his team from an embarrassing situation at the other end.
Argentina's Matias Rey had just ended his two-minute suspension, and with the entire Indian team having parked up in the Argentinian side of the pitch pretty much from pushback, he spotted a stray ball along the flanks as he was set to rejoin play. Rey picked it up and tried to catch PR Sreejesh unawares, but Sreejesh had read the danger and came off his line to close the angle. He needed company, though, and Varun could be seen speeding back to protect the post left empty to the left of his keeper. Sreejesh put in a dive to buy some time, and Rey failed to protect the ball from Varun, who had made a lot of ground in very little time.
Growing up in Mithapur, Punjab, Varun only had a passing interest in the sport. However, Mithapur is also home to Pargat Singh, captain of India's Olympic teams to Barcelona 1992 and Atlanta 1996, and arguably the biggest hockey hero of the past two generations. Further, his friend at school was a certain Manpreet Singh, who wears the captain's armband in Tokyo. Varun would go on to play a starring role in India's Junior Hockey World Cup win in Lucknow in 2016, featuring in the short corner battery alongside Harmanpreet Singh, one of India's two vice-captains here in Tokyo.
Coach Graham Reid should get some credit here too -- for the second game in a row, an alternate player, provided as Covid cover to the original roster of 16 for each team, has started a game and made an impact. Simranjeet Singh had replaced Gurjant Singh in the squad for the win against Spain, and here Varun made his way in with the experienced Birendra Lakra taking a rest. Argentina came back with a PC of their own and attacked with high intensity in the final quarter.
That created openings in itself, and India came back with two goals, to claim their first win at the Olympics over a reigning champion since their 1964 final win against Pakistan, also in Tokyo. Vivek Prasad, another of India's Olympics debutants (10 of 16, 12 of 18 if you include the alternates) scored India's second on a morning they have now assured themselves of finishing second behind Australia.
They owed the shift in momentum in a match where Argentina had successfully frustrated India in defence for a massive chunk of the first three quarters, to Varun's alertness and versatility. A new player hitting the ground running for the second game in a row, and the depth in their squad that conveys, is a great sign for India with the knockouts looming.