Twenty eight striking circle penetrations across four quarters by the Indians should have embarrassed the Japanese in what is the silver jubilee of the Sultan Azlan Shah Hockey Tournament. But the 2-1 score-line, in the first match for both the teams, honestly, gives more respect to the Japanese than the Indians who must be regretting the missed chances; a total of five out of eight shots at goals.
Tragedy struck the Indian team much before the match when pivotal centre-half Manpreet Singh lost his father back in India. Manpreet had to leave for the airport and is on his way back to Punjab. A minute’s silence was observed and the Indian team wore black arm-bands. It’s a blow to the team; one of the reasons why celebrations after the goals were muted.
In hockey, you don’t under-estimate the Japanese. They are plucky and sometimes a thorn in the flesh. And it seemed that India needed a little more thrust from the midfield while playing with three forwards upfront. And when Kenji Kitazato scored in the 2nd quarter (17th min), a few Indian heads flopped onto the shoulders. But a shout from Dutch coach Roelant Oltmans revived the Indians and the domination began. They were ragged in the first quarter – losing the ball constantly on the flanks which allowed the Japanese free space on the right side of the turf. That is Kothajit’s area and he was slow off the mark at least thrice, allowing the opponents to embarrass him. It was a different Kothajit in the rest of the match – solid and dependable.
Jasjit Singh Kular. Getty
But the man who surely stole the show — no, not Sardar Singh — but probably a talent, who if nurtured could make the right flank from the right half position downwards to the opposition circle his own; another Kular boy, Jasjit Singh Kular. He has the strength in the legs and a brain that out-thinks the opponent and looks beyond the first 20 metres in front. The vision is there and is work-load along with Sardar Singh got us the winning goal. Across 4 quarters, Jasjit had the ball almost 25 times out of which his passes were more than 50 percent accurate. He does remind you of Gurbaaz who should have been in the team if pure talent is taken as selection criteria. But what gladdens the heart is that Jasjit is slowly forming his own play and securing his position. Imagine an Indian team with both Gurbaaz and Jasjit!
It was the 3rd and 4th quarter that took the match away from the Japanese. Sometimes it’s the simple than the spectacular that helps you dominate and crush the opposition. After the initial euphoria, the Japanese couldn’t find the space any longer. Sardar was his smooth self and still gives you the impression that he isn’t running but moving on motorized shoes. However, it was a penalty corner; India’s first in the match that got the equalizer. Harmanpreet Singh loves Malaysia. In 2014, he scored nine goals in the Sultan of Johor Cup – all from penalty corners. A year later, in 2015, in the Junior Asia Cup, yet again in Malaysia, he slammed in 15 goals and India won the title. Today, his flick was perfect, swinging in between the Japanese goalkeeper and the post; the way he is going, Harmanpreet may just make the Malaysian Peninsula his home.
India did have two more penalty corners in the match but both were botched up jobs by Rupinder Pal Singh. Harmanpreet’s presence in the team will put some pressure on Rupinder Pal before the Olympic Games in August.
The move of the match came in the 3rd quarter, 32nd minute, off a beautiful flowing movement by Jasjit who dodged past two Japanese defenders, bisecting the ball to Sardar in the striking circle. Sardar, turned, brought the ball onto his left, reversed the stick and used the blade to delicately place the ball into the far post with the Japanese goalkeeper Takashi Yoshikawa caught out of position.
By the 4th quarter, India’s possession percentage was a huge 70 percent. They were holding the ball well and creating enough panic in the Japanese defence. Yoshikawa brought off two consecutive saves in the 4th quarter – one off Sunil’s thunderous drive and then Sardar’s hit off the rebound.
The areas of worry would be Sunil and Ramandeep. It’s perplexing that two forwards with so much of exposure over the last four years should still be wayward. Maybe, keeping it simple, controlling the situation and the ball would probably pay dividends. In the Olympic Games, every miss is a step away from the podium and a top six finish.
With Sreejesh rested for the tournament, Harjot as the goalkeeper wasn’t tested much except for the first penalty corner where he did reach the ball but couldn’t save the speeding flick. His litmus test comes tomorrow against the Australians, a team that refuses to take survivors. That would be a test against fire.