In a match that went back and forth like a switch-blade, fortunes were hanging on minute errors when India took on New Zealand in the Sultan Azlan Shah cup. The Black Sticks men knew India were vulnerable at the back. And they exploited it.
In a pacy exchange, where first time clearance should have been the norm, the Indian defence, especially goalkeeper Harjot Singh, lost his nerve to deflect the ball to Nicholson Wilson whose first timer found the target to give his team a 2-1 lead and eventually the match.
India is still on nine points with New Zealand on 11. But the Kiwis have finished their engagements while India takes on hosts Malaysia in what will be a virtual semi-final.
Thirty eight degrees with a 70 percent plus humidity would sap the fittest of teams. Both the teams deserve a round of applause that they didn’t ease off the accelerator. New Zealand, reigning champions and a team that plays on qualities of grit and tenacity, knew they faced an opponent high on momentum.
The structure that played so well against Pakistan was in place, except that the battle-hardened Kiwis knew how to suffocate the pacy Indian forwards just short of the striking circle. The defence played with a cool head, waiting for mistakes and then clearing to the flanks where they stretched the Indian defence.
New Zealand coach Colin Batch, a former Australian hockey legend, is a man who plays flexible formations but understands that tenacity is an attribute that ultimately is the difference between winning and losing. Any other team surrounded by the likes of SV Sunil, Talwinder, Mandeep, Sardar and Nikkin would eventually cave in, especially after the rhythm of the moves against Pakistan.
But the back four, like an experienced heavyweight boxer, soaked in the punches and counter-attacked with such venom that even when the Indians attacked, they always feared the Black Sticks coming away.
At the end of the first quarter, the possession was equal and the insight was that both were cagey and taking the match quarter-by-quarter. Indian coach Roelant Oltmans believes in structures, but is a man who would use the midfield to create and move the flanks.
On Wednesday, to an extent, both Manpreet and Sardar did that but that sharp edge seen against Pakistan was missing. It needs to be said that New Zealand are a much better team than Pakistan with no signs of brittleness. Only goals in succession would have rattled the Kiwis but with a misfiring Ramandeep and the eager-beaver Mandeep desperate to score his first, individualistic rather than team efforts came to the fore.
Yet, it was a solo run on the right flank by Sunil that earned India its first penalty corner. Rupinder Singh’s flick was flying into goal but Devon Manchester with a wide stretch of his stick arm deflected it over the bar. India had come near to taking the lead and putting pressure on the Kiwis.
Just when it seemed that India might stretch the quarter into the half-break, New Zealand took the lead in the 28th minute off their first penalty corner. It was a clean efficient strike except for the fact that Manpreet Singh, the rusher, had the misfortune of deflecting the ball by a few degrees to the right that ensured that Harjot Singh couldn’t get to it. The sudden variation in the movement of the ball beat Harjot who otherwise should have saved the flick.
With India diving into attack immediately, Ramandeep had a clear line but as has been the case with him off late, he hung around a little too much and was then crowded out by the Kiwi defence. Ramandeep needs to release either to someone on the flank or push the ball back into the midfield to build an attack. In the last three matches, Ramandeep Singh’s forays into the opponents striking circle have ended up with more opposition counter-attacks than build-ups from the Indian side.
It was a brilliant cohesive move that gave India the equalizer. Manpreet pushed to an overlapping Surender Kumar who took the ball deep into the Kiwi half before giving it to Talwinder right on top of the circle. Talwinder moved to the left and after having the Kiwi defence committed on the wrong foot, brought it back to his right and lashed a shot that flew straight to Mandeep who brought up his stick to deflect it into the New Zealand goal. It was a great piece of opportunism. Talwinder adds quality to the Indian side that sometimes runs out of answers inside the opponents striking circle.
With the scores equalized, it was anybody’s game. Yet, between both the sides, India’s defence was slightly shaky in moments of a Kiwi attack. And that came in the 41st minute resulting in a comedy of errors. In that brief period of five to eight seconds, India lost its structure at the back.
They again bunched together, giving Hugo Inglis space and nervous Indian sticks to race through to the touchline from where he reversed a rather soft looking shot. Harjot bracing for a strong hit, just pushed a pad in front and the ball got deflected to Nicholson Wilson. In fact, Harjot should have dropped to the ground and used his stick to clear it to the side or hit it into the middle where there were no players. Rupinder Pal Singh was wrong footed by the deflection as the ball landed at Nicholson Wilson’s stick. It was too good an opportunity to miss as the New Zealander hit it into goal for the match-winner.
Still, India had one more penalty corner which was saved brilliantly by Devon and then Nikkin saw his ferocious hit speed past the post.
India now has a day’s break before meeting hosts Malaysia, a match that would be played under flood lights and moderate temperatures.
Indian coach Oltmans was disappointed as a win would have wrapped up a final slot. “It was nice to beat Pakistan on Tuesday but it doesn’t mean that the tournament is over,” he said, suggesting that India-Pakistan matches are not anymore the right yard-stick to judge overall performance. He did admit that the next game would be tough as Malaysia is host but that the Indian team will be on their toes to make it to the final.