India, lethargic in the earlier encounters, played like a breeze to completely pulverize Pakistan 5-1 and move into 2nd spot in the Sultan Azlan Shah hockey tournament standings behind World Champions Australia. Dominating the midfield with the forwards suddenly finding their rhythm and positional strength, India turned in a red-hot performance on Tuesday in Ipoh, Malaysia.
The match began at a breathtaking pace. Manpreet playing only his second match after his father’s death, sprinted down the left flank and with a stunning reverse shot beat the Pakistan goalkeeper on the angle. The 4th minute opening goal came off a SV Sunil assist. Sunil, who was in all the wrong areas against Japan and Australia, scored the second of a brilliant deflection and then dived full-length to snare the third.
Three minutes later, Pakistan was in the attack and earned their first penalty corner which led to a second even though Rupinder Pal Singh pointed to his gloves hinting that the ball hit him on the hand. Muhammad Irfan was on target at the second time of asking even though Akash Chikte got his stick onto the ball.
The pace didn’t lessen. Both the teams attacked and for the first time in the tournament, both India and Pakistan used the flanks to great effect. When the sub-continental rivals play, the runs down the flanks are a treat, ball sticking to the curved angle as defenders from both sides are sent scurrying to protect their citadels. As a spectacle, hockey never looks better.
In the 10th minute, Manpreet who was dominating the midfield, an area where Sardar Singh is imperious, made his way into the Pakistan half and shot towards goal, knowing Sunil was standing with his back to the Pakistan goalkeeper. An unsighted Imran Butt never saw Sunil’s subtle deflection. Manpreet had paid Sunil back for the first goal assist. India now led 2-1.
Surprisingly, the second quarter was erratic. But it was in the second quarter that India stabilized. The forwards may have made the fans delirious with their brilliant runs but the foundation was laid at the back by Rupinder Pal Singh, Harmanpreet Singh, Surender Kumar, Jasjit Singh Kular and Khadangbam Kothajit.
For once, India got their defensive structure right. Playing in a single file at the back the cramped Pakistan for space. They did come up to the half but after that every forward of theirs found an Indian defender cutting off the feed or neatly tackling. Sardar and Manpreet exploited the space in the middle. With the back secure, Sunil, Talwinder Singh, Ramandeep and Danish Mujtaba were running into the Pakistan striking circle with ease.
Pakistan seemed a bit assured in the 3rd quarter as India played a containing game, keeping the rotation in the defence. A brilliant move, probably the move of the tournament came in the 41st minute. Kothajit had wandered down the right flank and from outside the circle gave an inch perfect pass to Thimmaiah who deflected the ball from between his legs with an angled stick. As the ball sped across the Pakistan goalmouth, Sunil lurking on the right side of the goal dived full length and sent the ball in for India to lead 3-1. At that stage, 34 percent of the moves had come from the right and left flank with the centre of the circle contributing 24 percent.
The momentum was now with India. And like a drummer in full flow, India didn’t strike a false note as both teams headed into the last and 4th quarter.
It was in the last 15 minutes that Sardar Singh, a ghost on the pitch till then, finally came to life. Just when it seemed that the ball was eluding him, he picked it up, deftly switched it to the right and with his customary burst of space entered the Pakistan striking circle, let loose a shot that even though Imran Butt saved, his knees would have felt the impact through those thick pads.
Talwinder decided that he needed to be on the scoring sheet too and in the 50th minute; he picked up a rebound of Pakistan defender Muhammad Rizwan’s stick and after giving himself adequate room slammed it in for India’s 4th goal. Pakistan was reeling now. All India had to do was keep attacking and stretching the gaps. Four minutes later, India had their 2nd penalty corner and Rupinder Pal Singh flicked in high into the net for the 5th goal. A minute later, Manpreet sped into the circle and was brought down by a shoulder charge. Murray Grimes, the Australian umpire pointed to the spot. But Rupinder’s stroke went straight to Butts chest and was easily saved.
In the dying minutes, it seemed that Ramandeep Singh had finally broken his jinx of not scoring when he deflected in a goal past Imran Butt. But for reasons not known Grimes disallowed the sixth goal as the entire team protested.
Other than that mishap, everything worked like clock-work for an efficient India.
India after four matches is in the 2nd spot with nine points. Australia is perched on top with 12 points having won all four games. New Zealand is in third spot after five games and has eight points.