India’s ability to slip into a higher gear helped as a late flourish from Nikkin Thimmaiah and Akashdeep Singh ensured that the Asian Champions beat Malaysia 4-2 and kept their hopes alive for a place in the final of the 4-Nations Festival of Hockey in Melbourne. While intensity was the reason that they remained dynamic in the fourth quarter, the earlier part of the match was scrappy. In the first three quarters, India looked combative only in patches.
Malaysia will be unhappy that they couldn’t hold India in the last five minutes but they walked off the pitch knowing their two goals were gifts from an Indian defence, which a Japanese psychologist would probably define as 'Harakiri'. Off the pitch, back in the hotel, both VR Raghunath and Sarjit Singh should probably expect a mouthful from interim coach Roger Van Gent.
Nikkin Thimmaiah scored two goals (24th and 55th minute) with the other two coming off Rupinder Pal Singh (40th) and Akashdeep Singh (56th). Malaysia pulled back to level the match twice through Faizal Saari (39th) and Shahril Sabbah (47th).
The pace in the first five minutes of the match did point to the fact that India were eager to forget the defeat against Australia. They needed points as they sat at the bottom and only a win could keep them alive. On Wednesday against the Aussies, the Indians were lacking central skills in the second and third quarter and they tried to change that against Malaysia.
Thirty seconds into the match and Manpreet Singh could have scored but his reverse hit went over the post. Talwinder Singh, in his imitable style, swept into the Malaysian circle but the lovely, stinging cross wasn't received by a single Indian stick in time. Half way through the first quarter, Malaysia started picking up crosses and pegged India back for long periods. Akash Chikte, after an error-prone performance against Australia, on Thursday looked alert and in the 10th minute came off the line to brilliantly save a Ramadan Rosli shot.
The breakthrough for India came off a brilliant Sardar Singh move. Almost dispossessed at the half line, Sardar wrenched the ball back and sent a lovely through ball that tore open the Malaysian defence. Satbir Singh trapped it neatly and sent it to an overlapping Nikkin inside the Malaysian striking circle. What followed was a beautiful display of skill as Nikkin dragged the ball to the left, and seeing open space, cracked a shot that beat veteran Malaysian goalkeeper Kumar Subramiam. India should have ridden the momentum but they fell back, and unlike what one has seen in the recent past, kept losing balls in the midfield. Aamir Khan, inducted into the senior team, was more keen on showcasing his dribbling skills than using his lateral vision to pass to better-placed teammates. Eventually, the second quarter petered out with India hanging on to a 1-0 lead.
Both India and Malaysia changed their goalkeeper after half time. In place of Chikte came Abhinav Pandey and Malaysia’s Kumar gave way to Othman Hafizuddin. Pandey made two good saves off extremely hard, angular shots from the top of the circle. But the good work went out of the window when Raghunath pushed a Malaysian forward from behind just outside the striking circle. It was a double whammy as the captain got a green card and India gave a penalty corner away for the first time in the match. Malaysia didn’t lose the opportunity as Faizal Saari, one of the few forwards in the world with the ability to flick penalty corners, beat Pandey with a speedy flick. Tied at 1-1, India fought back and within a minute, Pardeep Mor let loose a shot down the right flank, that went straight to Sardar within handshaking distance of the Malaysian goalkeeper Othman. With no options in front, Othman sat on the ball as India earned their first penalty corner. Rupinder Pal Singh was on target to score his third goal of the tournament and give India a 2-1 lead. Taking the last tournament into account, this was Rupinder’s 14th penalty corner goal.
Malaysia fought back and almost had the equalizer when Ramadan Rosli ran down the left flank, drew Pandey out and sent a high shot which looked like it was headed straight to goal. But Birendra Lakra was on the line to smother the shot and clear it. Only someone with hand-eye coordination like Lakra’s could have achieved that. Two minutes left in the third quarter, India had their second penalty corner but Rupinder couldn’t stop the ball cleanly.
India came all out in the fourth quarter as the Malaysian goalkeeper saved a wonderful reverse shot from Akashdeep and then Nikkin came close, his scoop beat the goalkeeper but sailed over the post. And then Satbir made what is considered a ridiculous error at this level. The umpire had already blown for an infringement and Satbir, instead of stepping back, hit the ball away. With Murray Grimes officiating, players don’t take these liberties and he immediately gave a penalty corner to Malaysia. Saabah Shahril didn’t look at a gift horse in the mouth as he flicked past Pandey to draw Malaysia level at 2-2. India pressed hard as the coach called Satbir off the ground. The Punjab Warriors player didn’t come back on to the pitch.
With five minutes left in the last quarter, India pressed hard and Akashdeep stole a ball in the midfield off a Malaysian stick. He charged in and put through a beautiful ball for Nikkin who slid the ball past Othman to give India a 3-2 lead. Akashdeep could have gone alone, show-boating his skills, but being selfish is not a character of this team. With four minutes remaining, India rode the charge again from the midfield and Akashdeep this time saw space in front and beat the Malaysian goalkeeper with a reverse hit for India to lead 4-2. This was India’s third consecutive tournament victory over Malaysia — earlier wins were 6-1 at the Azlan Shah and 2-1 at the Asian Champions Trophy.
Despite the win, Indian coach Roger Gent wasn’t too happy a man. "Not happy with the first half," the Dutchman said, "But I am happy with the result. We needed to stay alive in the tournament and we have done that." After a rest day on Friday, India now play New Zealand on Saturday.