Champions Trophy Hockey 2018: Tenacious India outdone on penalties but fast, counter-attacking style augurs well

Dominating in three of the four quarters, finding space on the flanks and the midfield zones, defenders playing as if auditioning for the roles of forwards, and pegging back the World Champions into a largely defensive role, the eventual shoot-out at the end of a 1-1 regulation time scoreline seemed a trifle unfair. Going into a period where luck does play a significant part, the 3-1 score in Australia’s favour tore India’s heart. It was gut-wrenching, one that made a ferocious midfielder like Manpreet Singh break into tears, an 18-year-old goal scorer, Vivek Prasad say "the hurt will remain" and a captain exclaim that "we gifted the Trophy to Australia."

Critics might say India played out of their skins and pushed the mighty Aussies back. Some would offer consolation with an air of resignation. But the performance in the four quarters was mature, tactically sound and with just a few inches here or there the team could have been celebrating so raucously that Breda would have stayed up all night.

 Champions Trophy Hockey 2018: Tenacious India outdone on penalties but fast, counter-attacking style augurs well

India won their second consecutive Champions Trophy silver. AFP/ File

In the end, while the Australians guzzled beer, the Indians sat around the Hockey Club, gloom written on their faces, desperate to get back to their hotel. Coach Harendra Singh summed it up: “Tonight, sleep would be difficult. The hurt would remain for weeks.”

In the morning team meeting, however, the instructions were clear that errors would be minimised and defence positions will not break. In other words, keep the structure going through the four quarters. But in the middle of the first quarter, Harendra saw the Aussies back-pedalling. “That was the moment I told them to go up and play your game; but no easy balls to the Aussies.”

It was a different match from then on. The midfield stretched itself. The defences came up, minimising the gap between them and the midfield. The Australians didn’t get the gaps and constantly ran into either Surender Kumar, Varun Kumar or Jarmanpreet Singh. Birendra Lakra played as if trying to convince the coach that he is a better forward than a defender. Time and again, head down, he dribbled like he owned the black arts, going past Australian forwards and midfielders like a hot knife through butter. Time and again, he dragged the game away from the reigning champions and threw balls on the flanks or pushed it to Simranjeet Singh, a player who has been growing in stature match after match.

It was Amit Rohidas who went for the referral in the opening minutes and got the first penalty corner. And then came the second too as Australia wondered where were they losing the grip. They had an initial exchange with Sreejesh, but that was a straightforward shot on the pads.

Surender, meanwhile, had also loosened the shackles and towards the end of the first quarter, sprinted through the midfield to give it to Dilpreet who sent it to SV Sunil and with just the goalkeeper in front, tapped the ball onto his own feet.

Blake Govers, Aran Zalewski, Tom Craig, Daniel Beale were doing their running around the Indian striking circle. While the defenders plucked balls away cleanly, Sreejesh was also on fire too, keeping shots away and also the few loose balls that went free in the circle. Both teams displayed extraordinary positional strength and in a final like this, both Sreejesh and his Aussie counterpart Lovell Tyler were in superb form.

In the second quarter, Simranjeet sped into the Aussie half, drew away most of the defence and squared brilliantly to Sunil who just couldn’t control it. Meanwhile, Australia pushed and earned their first PC in the 24th minute. After a dummy push that slightly took the Indian defence to one side, Govers powered the flick glove height to Sreejesh who was in position but the ball deflected off the glove and into goal. It was a soft goal that bothered Sreejesh no end, even after the match was over. For a man so much in form, Australia had earned a lucky break sending the ball past him.

India now chased. The goal broke whatever little chains that bound them as a defensive unit. Aerial balls, rotation, possession and sending parallel passes across the midfield became the staple diet. To the credit of the Aussies, they didn’t relent or become overtly defensive. India wasted a third PC and even Lakra had a chance when he dribbled back and forth till he ran out of space.

At the break, Australia led by a goal. Immediately on resumption, India once again held the middle as its forwards rode on the through balls to keep the Aussies looking over their shoulder. India’s aggression had balanced the match out; they were clearly ahead on circle entries, shots on goal and also on the PCs.

A Manpreet-Dilpreet move gave India their fourth PC. Varun slid it to Manpreet, who lost balance precisely at the moment to shoot. Both teams went back and forth, and the crowds loved every minute of it. They enjoyed the fight that India was giving, taking the game to the Aussies. With eight minutes to go in the third quarter, Surender sent a through ball that reached Mandeep, who beat a mass of Aussie legs and sticks and reached and tapped it towards goal. The ball hit the post and came back into play. The crowds groaned. On the Indian bench, Harendra wondered how to find the equaliser. It came from the flank as Chinglensana fired a hit that rose in the air off a stick as Vivek Prasad, alert and following the trajectory, walloped the ball into the goal. It was a brilliant goal from an 18-year-old playing his first big final. He could have waited for the ball to drop and then take a hit. But Vivek saw the opening to the right of Tyler and smacked it in.

Suddenly, the match was on as India pushed hard and tried to hold the ball for the remaining two minutes of the third quarter. The third quarter possession for India was around 53 percent with six circle entries and four shots on goal.

The final quarter opened to frenetic pace. Manpreet was leading the way with a powerful display just short of the Aussie striking circle. A shot went wide before Dilpreet’s shot was saved by Tyrel. Australia was not willing to come forward with too many players knowing India’s penchant for the counter and didn’t want to be caught on the wrong foot.

With five minutes left, Sunil swung in from the right flank and sent a cross that evaded the Aussie sticks and looked headed for goal. All Manpreet had to do was tap it in. But he went the wrong way as an Aussie defender covered it. The opportunity to close the match had come and gone.

In the last minute, India held onto the ball and kept the Aussies away who probably were more relieved.

With Sreejesh in tremendous form, one felt India could swing the shoot-out. Australia started well with captain Aran Zalewski converting. Sardar went for the gap in the goalkeeper’s pads but the ball hit the outside flap and slid away. After Daniel Beale made it 2-0, Harmanpreet Singh missed. Matthew Swann and Tom Craig couldn’t score and it looked like India had an outside chance when Manpreet Singh converted. But Jeremy Edwards hoodwinked Sreejesh as Australia was crowned Champions Trophy winners for a record 15th time in an incredible 36 appearances. In the modern era, it will remain a dominant performance in any championship.

For India, it was a second consecutive silver. They came into the tournament trying to salvage some pride after a disaster at the Commonwealth Games. After the hurt has been resolved and team meetings held over what could have been against the Aussies, they would look back with pride on what has transpired at Breda. As Harendra said, “Immediately after the match was over, I told the team to be proud of what they could achieve here. They played a final against the world champions and could easily have turned the match around. But we will have our chances and maybe, something big is around the corner.”

Winning the best goalkeeper award wouldn’t heal the wounds for Sreejesh. “Individual awards are okay and they last for a moment or so,” he said. “The magic was in winning the Champions Trophy and it is only then that an individual award makes sense in what is a team win. Its’s okay for me. It would have been an achievement if we had won.”

Speaking on the Australian PC that sneaked in, Sreejesh was hugely upset. “I let the team down with that kind of goal,” he admonished himself. “As a goalkeeper, you cannot let in those kind of goals. I know I let the team down.”

Yet it was a sparkling performance from Sreejesh that kept the team afloat in difficult circumstances. Vivek was excited that he could score in such a big final but absolutely gutted that India lost. “We came to win and that was the mood in the team meeting,” he said. “We knew exactly what to do and we did everything. Maybe, a little more was needed.”

Tears glistening in his eyes, Manpreet couldn’t come to terms with a second silver. “I still cannot believe that we lost that match. Everything was in our favour and we were doing everything right on the pitch. Yes, we should have put the chances away.” For a long time, he held his head, wiping away tears. Finally, he looked up and said, “It will take some time but we will look forward to the challenges ahead in the Asian Games and the World Cup.”

Finesse can be illusionary at times. Tenacity combined with ball possession and a fast counter-attacking style may give this Indian side a new identity. At this moment, temporarily devoid of emotion, the Champions Trophy silver medal could be therapeutic for a side that has some big challenges around the corner.

Updated Date: Jul 02, 2018 14:06:23 IST