It was a familiar performance. Cracks at goal, zipping crosses, outlandish dribbles, the sprint past the defence, time and again. To the amateur eye, India couldn’t have been the losing side. But in a match where they needed to show maturity, wear the bigger sized shoe; they played a game that did create zip and verve but not a victory. New Zealand dismantled India, like a loving mechanic would do to a Ferrari; inch by inch, quarter by quarter, well versed in what India were offering.
The Kiwis took advantage of a sloppy defence, controlled the match and eventually beat a shocked Indian side that had ambition but was also much too staid. The score-line 3-2 in favour of the Kiwis takes them to the CWG Final and relegated India to the bronze medal match. India had reached the last two CWG finals. For Indian hockey, without being dramatic, this was a step back. India ranked 6th had lost to the 9th ranked NZ.
The momentum was with India. New Zealand had lost their last Pool match to Australia. India had beaten England in a stirring last Pool game to top the group. It wouldn’t be out of line to say that India could have been a goal up in the first five minutes. But the control wasn’t there; the heads were up and not down looking at the corners or where to place the ball. There was just too much hurry.
Mandeep had the angle and the perfect space. But he went wild. A cross back into the circle could have given India another chance. The 3rd minute PC promised but when Richard Joyce took it on the pads, the rebound was free but Gurjant shot wide. A few minutes later, 17-year-old Vivek Sagar sent a cross that had ‘genius’ written all over it. Sumit, trapped, delayed and the Kiwis took over.
New Zealand knew India would come with everything they have. So they controlled the ball at the back and realised that lesser the amount of possession Indians enjoy, the better it would be. For long stretches they kept banging it between the full backs, figuring out gaps and spaces inside the Indian territory. The goal came in the 7th minute when George Muir, threw himself full stretch on the midfield and saw the ball reach Hugo Inglis. The Kiwi forward raced in and Sreejesh committed his first mistake of the match, coming up and not closing the gap. Usually, a goalkeeper would stand on the line knowing the angle could be acute. But the brilliance of Inglis’ reverse shot sped past the Indian goalkeeper. The goal powered the Kiwis; it had come against the run of play. In other words, India had given them a bonus. India probably also felt the absence of Rupinder Pal Singh, out with a hamstring injury. But then one player doesn’t make a team.
The second error came in the 13th minute and was severely punished. Amit Rohidas with acres of space in front, expanse for the aerial ball or whatever he wanted to do, gave the ball to Indian captain Manpreet Singh just on the top of the Indian striking circle. Manpreet fumbled, the ball bouncing away to Stephen Jenness who ran in, turned around and tapped it between his own legs and through the pads of Sreejesh. India’s comedy of errors had given New Zealand a 2-0 lead. In a match of the intensity of a semi-final where you are playing New Zealand, a team that closes down fast and has the physicality to stop you in the midfield, giving them a 2-goal lead was like going to a party thrown by the Kiwis and end up paying for it.
New Zealand started the second quarter with a PC which Sreejesh saved. Then Sunil came into the attack and in his familiar right out position saw his shot go wide. The match opened up a bit for India when NZ captain Arun Panchia brought Sumit down in the striking circle and was given the yellow card. Varun’s PC flick was weak but the ball rebounded of Joyce’s pads. The resultant hit skimmed off Nic Woods face mask as the umpire pointed for a stroke. Harmanpreet Singh converted and just before the break India had cut the scores 1-2; a life line had been provided.
The 3rd quarter promised much and it didn’t disappoint. India kept attacking, mostly from the right flank and New Zealand kept mixing it up – long hits, aerial balls and hits on the line. They did their best to keep the game away from India. India had their 3rd PC in the 33rd minute as NZ saved. Then two consecutive PC’s fell New Zealand’s way and off their 3rd in the match after Sreejesh had saved two shots, Marcus Child hit a rising ball into the Indian goal. At 3-1, India was seeking divine intervention. In the 41st and 43rd minutes, India did get some needed help with two PCs. The first one wasn’t stopped properly while the second flicked by Rohidas was saved by Joyce. It needs to be said that Richard Joyce brought off six saves in the 3rd quarter. Never was the defence ruffled or caught in a panic. They held their nerves, cleared well and maintained their structure despite Sunil, Akashdeep, Dilpreet and Mandeep running rampant.
Desperate India went all out in the 4th quarter. It was now or never. Dilpreet had a shot and he beat Joyce but the post came in the way. George Muir had taken it upon himself to be the runner and take care of the PCs. In some PCs even before Harmanpreet had taken the flick, Muir reached him. There was no variation in the flicks. India played to a pattern, flocking in from the right, sending in the ball and waited for a forward to score, quarter by quarter.
The full press still gave them four PC’s in the 4th quarter. And off the 4th, 9th of the match, Harmanpreet flicked in finally. By then India had taken of Sreejesh in a bid to get the equaliser. The last nail in the coffin was hammered in when Akashdeep got a yellow card in the 57th minute as India played with ten on the field.
India had 30 circle penetrations to New Zealand’s 18 while India had 9 PC’s to the Kiwis 3. Ball possession for India was 52 percent to New Zealand’s 48 percent. Yet the score-line is 3-2 in favour of New Zealand. Optimists could suggest that India were unlucky. But a pattern does emerge that either India don’t have the scorers with the mind-set of a poacher or India get predictable when it comes to building up in the midfield. A look at the goals scored by both the teams including the semi-finals will present a clearer picture. New Zealand has scored 21 goals with ten field goals and 11 penalty corners. India has scored 14 with 4 field goals and 9 PC’s.
Somewhere, all the full press and sprinting with the ball is not yielding the results; maybe, India are still not able to handle the big game pressure. In the end, sport is all about character. On Friday, New Zealand showed it.
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Updated Date: Apr 13, 2018 22:52:30 IST