It was a prediction that went completely wrong. In fact, awry would be the word. We may just say the Indian coach Harendra Singh’s crystal-gazing was static. But he wasn’t complaining. Before the Indian team left for Jakarta for the Asian Games 2018, Harendra had predicted Japan as the ‘surprise’ team, the ‘X-factor’. However, India whacked Japan 8-0 and snuffed out whatever challenge they were forecast to bring to the Asian Games. By the end of the 1st quarter, India led 2-0. Japan, surprised by India’s pace, broke ranks, displaying brittle temperament and a lack of patience allowing the Indians to completely pulverize them. The score line could easily have crossed double figures and that upset Harendra the most, probably more than just getting one conversion out of 8 penalty corners (PCs) in the match.
The scorers for India were SV Sunil (7th), Dilpreet Singh (12th), Rupinder Pal Singh (17th and 38th), Mandeep Singh (32nd and 57th), Akashdeep Singh (46th) and Vivek Prasad (47th). “The energy was good in the 1st two quarters,” said Harendra. "I wanted them to push and not let go. But there are areas where we need to be sharp," he added. The Indian coach explained how he felt that with important matches coming in the next few days, especially with South Korea on 26 August, the players needed to close out moves and not waste opportunities. Manpreet Singh, who had an outing, also stressed on the fact that every ‘opportunity needs to be the last’ and so wasting could be crucial for the team.
The pace was killing in the 1st quarter. The team used both the flanks and interchanged positions. At times in the match, it did seem that it was just one offensive unit. Surender Kumar, Harmanpreet, Amit Rohidas and Birendra Lakra drove into the Japanese half and even entered their striking circle. The finish was sharp in the first quarters before becoming slightly sluggish as the match wore on and India kept getting the goals.
Japan did play well. But with no space to operate, they constantly back-pedalled. Two goals down, they could have made some amends but PR Sreejesh, sure and compact in the Indian defence, kept them away with fine saves. Kenta Tanaka had a brilliant chance, sprinting away into the Indian circle after a turn-over but angled his run a little too much. The resultant shot was saved by Sreejesh. A little later, he made another save keeping India’s lead intact and also not letting Japan into the match. Early in the year, India had played Japan in the 4-Nation Invitational in New Zealand and had won 4-2. In 13 matches in an Asian Games, India has never lost to Japan and that record was kept intact.
India’s PC conversion looked good in the 17th minute, when Rupinder Pal Singh powered in the flick off India’s 2nd PC. But later in the match, despite Harmanpreet and Amit Rohidas also trying their hand, not a single flick went in. Manpreet says, “That we need to acknowledge the Japanese defence and their runners who saved the situation.” But the former Indian captain is not overly bothered with the low conversion rate. "I think we shouldn’t over think the issue, It will come good and we are confident about that," he said.
Vivek Prasad's 7th goal brought up India’s 50th goal in the competition out of a possible 123 viable chances. Thirty-three of them have been field goals, 16 PCs and two strokes. Those 16 PCs have come off 38 attempts, an area which needs seriously looking into. Scoring against Hong Kong China is not the exact standard of opposition but scoring one off 8 against the Japan is worrying.
Harmanpreet has scored 4 out of 10 PCs, Rupinder has 5 out of 12, Amit Rohidas has 2 out of 8 and Varun Kumar has 1 out of 2. A higher percentage of conversions would guarantee a place in the final and a sure shot chance of retaining the Asian Games Gold. “We need to understand the issue. But I am confident that we will overcome,” says Harendra on the PCs
The first two quarters went past in a blur. It was heartening to see most of the team play with soft hands. It’s not unusual to see Akashdeep, Sardar, Lalit, Dilpreet move the ball deftly, using a high amount of skill. Even Vivek produced moments of magic – near perfect aerial balls, the silken dribble while Akashdeep did his normal tip-taps, placing the ball into empty spaces, all the while opening up the Japanese defence for the Indian team to flood in.
In the past, India have made heavy weather of lesser teams or with teams that play spoiler. The only way was to create pandemonium and India did that very well. Vivek Prasad might lull the opposition into assuming he could be slightly underage, but the 17-year-old lad packs quite a punch and with his kind of speed, it takes a special kind of defence to stop him. Even the stroke that he earned came off knowing that the Japanese would try and stop him either with a stick-check or somebody would push him. The stroke was converted by Rupinder. Lalit played with amazing dexterity while Sardar used his first touch to good effect. He still finds his teammates stick with uncanny accuracy. While clearing from the defence, he invariably opens up the opposition midfield with a counter-attack.
It was only in the 4th quarter that India lost a bit of structure which led to indiscipline – a green card for Mandeep and then later in the match, a yellow for Birendra Lakra. Japan also earned their 1st PC of the match. Sreejesh had been pulled off the 4th quarter and Krishan Bahadur Pathak also made a few good saves.
With the score lines going through the roof, India would have to guard against complacency, even though the 8-0 win on Friday also would put things in perspective. It would be a shame to underperform now knowing the strength of the opponents. In fact, after a long time that in the 1st quarters, only 3 turn-overs was given by the Indian side. Against a much more confident side, those turn-overs could have proved crucial.
For India, there were 41 circle penetrations, a fact that doesn’t sit well with Harendra. “A miss is a miss and in a sport like hockey, misses lead to heavy casualties,” says Harendra.
It’s the hard-nosed approach that is paying dividends for Harendra. It’s also an Indian team that is slowly and surely falling into the habit of winning. Against Japan, the result was expected to be in India’s favour. It’s the margin of victory that has fans surprised. This Indian team is combative with a remarkable level of consistency irrespective of the opposition. Goal scoring is an art and the Indian coach wants it perfected. In the days ahead, only consistency combined with fluency would be the real measure of success.
Updated Date: Aug 25, 2018 14:10 PM