Beating Pakistan to the 2016 Asian Champions Trophy title was the perfect Diwali gift that an Indian hockey team has ever given to the nation. Since 1947, no hockey final, which featured India and Pakistan has ever been played on Diwali. But on Sunday, in a match that could have gone either way after Pakistan made it 2-2, saw India keep its composure to snatch a match-winner through Nikkin Thimmaiah and regain the Asian Champions Trophy in Kuantan. The men in blue had last won the trophy in 2011 at Ordos, which also was the inaugural edition of the championship.
India's superior ranking (6th to Pakistan’s 13th) would have given them confidence going into the final. And once they raced to a 2-0 lead, through a penalty corner goal from Rupinder Pal Singh and then Affan Yousuf, who finished off a wonderful move from the right flank, it seemed that the match had been snatched from Pakistan’s hands. Sardar Singh was playing across the pitch, passing from the left and running across to the right to defend. The semi-final performance had ignited the former captain’s bag of tricks. In fact, Yousuf’s goal was a brilliant pass from Sardar, from way outside the Pakistan striking circle. But his pass found the stick of Ramandeep whose hit was deflected in by Yousuf. In the end, it was no surprise that Sardar was chosen Man-of-the-Match.
But, if India can be sublime, they can also come up with the silliest of errors. Instead of holding the ball and creating a structure, that was required in a final, Roelant Oltmans' men gave the midfield away to Pakistan. Suddenly, Pakistan had a look at the Indian goal when they earned a penalty corner in the 26th minute of the 2nd quarter. Muhammad Aleem Bilal hadn’t set the turf on fire with his flicks but did enough to expose Akash Chikte’s response to a low grounded shot that cut the margin to 1-2. At that point, one wondered if Sreejesh's absence due to a hamstring injury would cost India dear.
But at the break, India held on to a 2-1 lead.
However, the equalizer came in the 38th minute off an error as India scrambled to defend. Ali Shan raced away celebrating after scoring the equalizer as Pakistan came to life. Doubts started creeping into the minds of the Indian players. A rash of errors crept in; missing balls in the midfield, miss-passes in the defence, crosses going wide, subtle touches falling onto Pakistan sticks. The tide had turned. Pakistan looked stronger and India were rattled by their own mistakes. The defending champions used the aerial ball and the Indian defence couldn’t judge the bounce. Tactically, Pakistan had India pinned down.
But slowly, the Oltmans' men crawled back. Something they had already done a few times in the tournament before. In fact, in the group match with Pakistan, they gave away the lead before slotting home twice and winning the match 3-2. But this was a final; more errors could have proven to be fatal.
It could easily have been 3-1 but Talwinder after being put through by Nikkin shot over the goal. Not forcing the goalkeeper to make a save could have been criminal in a final.
Pradeep Mor also shook himself awake on the right flank and started playing the kind of hockey he put on show in the semi-final. But India's forwards were not getting into positions. Somewhere at the back of their minds was the lurking danger of a Pakistan counter that held them back; thus in the bargain they lost a few sharp chances in the striking circle.
Sardar was being pulled back into defence as Pakistan stretched India on the right flank. India rotated the ball, looking for gaps, holding the play in the midfield. Kothajit’s rush into the Pakistan striking circle saw the deft but powerful push from the Manipuri hit the boards. South African umpire Peter Wright signalled for a goal but then to the amazement of all asked for a video referral on his own decision. Wright believed that the shot was taken from outside the striking circle and the video umpire ruled it as no goal.
It was back to 2-2 as tensions rose with the clock ticking away. It seemed that both the teams would defend and take it to a shoot-out, the 4th consecutive in two days.
Nine minutes to go in the match, Sardar found some space and crossed into the Pakistan half. His pass went through the Pakistan defence and on the left flank, just inside the striking circle found Nikkin. Finally, the perfect opportunity fell India's way and Nikkin wrote himself into the history books as the player to score the match-winner in a final against Pakistan.
At 3-2, Pakistan made a last ditch effort and a cross from the right looked dangerous as it unattended across the face of the goal . India were holding the ball and moving down the line, shielding the ball. There was no effort to create a move. The seconds were being run down. Akashdeep took the ball into a corner and played out precious time. Pakistan tried to price the ball away, but the clock was moving faster than their attempts. Finally, India celebrated their first gold medal after the 2014 Asian Games after they had clinched the World League bronze and the much coveted Champions Trophy silver. But this victory would be sweet and celebrated long into the night at Kuantan.
India's ability to once again raise their game after being pegged back by Pakistan showed glimpses of their strong character and that has been a hallmark of their show in the 2016 Asian Champions Trophy in Kuantan.
Updated Date: Oct 31, 2016 00:20 AM