Stung by the disappointment of not playing the 4-nation International Festival of Hockey final, India put up a purposeful and a professional display to outplay Malaysia 4-1 and claim the third spot, and with it, the bronze medal in Melbourne. India started strongly with Akashdeep Singh getting an early goal, and V Raghunath (45th), Talwinder Singh (52nd) and Rupinder Pal Singh (58th) adding to the tally. Joel van Huizen pulled one back for Malaysia in the 45th minute.
There was no doubt about the frustration in the Indian ranks after the 2-3 loss to New Zealand on Saturday that denied them a final berth, given that they had dominated every aspect of that match. And the Indian coach Roger van Gent’s words described it aptly. “We did go back and do an analysis of the match and realised where we had gone wrong. The disappointment of not playing the final was there and we used the bronze medal playoff as a point of correcting things.”
India started aggressively and Birendra Lakra accepted with glee the space afforded to him on the right flank. His hard hit zipped into the Malaysian striking circle and Akashdeep hung out his stick, the deflection beating the Malaysian goalkeeper Kumar Subramiam for India to lead 1-0 on the second minute.
The intent in the Indian team was very clear – they had been instructed to get goals. With Nikkin Thimmaiah ruled out with a calf injury, India had lost a pace-setter in the striking circle and someone who could keep the opposition defence on their toes. Affan Yousuf had a few clear cut chances and looked lively throughout the match. But two very good reverse shots by Yousuf, with him swivelling on his toes and hitting them cleanly, were saved by the Malaysian goalkeeper. Aamir Khan, low on confidence as he couldn’t get any goals in the tournament did try but was always hemmed in by defenders. Even though his output is great but he needs to work on creating chances where none lie. Talwinder had a good game and his inter-play with Akashdeep was the hallmark of the match. They thrice created chances and scored once off them.
If India's forward play was encouraging, it was their execution of penalty corners that baffled everyone. Rupinder was off the field when India got a string of four consecutive penalty corners. All four were taken by Raghunath but the execution was ordinary and the same on consecutive flicks. One was left wondering why no indirect penalty corner was tried either on the third or the fourth penalty corner.
Malaysia turned their game around in the second quarter when India lacked domination in the midfield. This was their best quarter but India were a tough nut to crack at the back. Van Huizen and Sabbah Shahril combined superbly for Malaysia in this period. But India kept them away with Lakra defending vigorously.
Raghunath finally got onto the scoresheet in the third quarter and off the sixth penalty corner. It was a clean flick that went into the right hand corner and India led 2-0. The captain had scored his first goal of the tournament.
Within the space of a minute Malaysia sped into attack while India dozed off for a few seconds. It was enough for Shahril to drill a cross into the Indian striking circle where van Huizen deflected it beautifully past the Indian goalkeeper. Surender Kumar was the player on van Huizen but he let the Malaysian forward get away with a shot.
India increased the intensity in the fourth and last quarter, swarming in from the flanks and making a few runs through the middle that unsettled the Malaysian team looking for an equaliser. In the 52nd minute, Akashdeep swept into the Malaysian striking circle and gave it to Talwinder who waited for a second before slapping the ball into the corner to give India a 3-1 lead.
India’s seventh penalty corner followed in the 58th minute and this time Rupinder was on the field to take it and dispatched a low carpet shot that beat the goalkeeper including the defender on the line for a 4-1 lead. It was Rupinder’s sixth goal of the tournament. It was India’s fourth consecutive win over Malaysia after victories at the Azlan Shah (6-1), Asian Champions Trophy (2-1), and here, earlier in the league phase (4-2).
Statistics explained the dominance of India with the Asian Champions having 18 shots on goal to Malaysia’s four. Indian captain Raghunath said the team came back strongly after the loss to New Zealand. “We could have been in the final but that two-minute period where we lost focus cost us heavily,” said Raghunath. Van Gent, the Indian coach was happy with the result. “We needed more balls in the ‘D’ and that’s what we did and won the match.”