FIH Series Finals 2019: India start favourites in summit clash against South Africa, but hosts must look to minimise errors

Indian hockey’s solo acts are playing well. Coming together in bits and pieces of co-ordinated moves, they were good enough to see off Asian Games Champions Japan 7-2 in the semi-finals on Friday. For Graham Reid, that won’t be enough. The Australian, a known stickler for processes, would be looking forward to a composed concerto from a team he hopes to take all the way to Tokyo 2020.

 FIH Series Finals 2019: India start favourites in summit clash against South Africa, but hosts must look to minimise errors

India will look for an error-free game in the final. Image: Hockey India

South Africa, to be honest, is not in the same class. They use pace, cut across the infield and spray passes to the flanks to overlap and hustle the opponent. The same measures brought about USA’s downfall in the semi-final when with 34 seconds left, the South Africans launched an assault and got the winner.

They are good at possession. They know how to kill pace in a match and keep the ball away from the opponent. But will that be enough against an Indian side that tasted blood against Japan?

It all points to a no-contest but that would be disrespecting the opponent. In the last match against South Africa, at the very same stadium during the 2018 World Cup, India beat them 5-0 and muffed the same amount of chances. From that Indian team, Dilpreet Singh, Lalit Upadhyay, Chinglensana and Kothajit are missing. South Africa have lost seven members from the team that played in the World Cup. A younger element has been introduced but the backbone is still marshalled by Austin Smith, Jethro Eustice and Tim Drummond; those three will be largely in play today when it comes to experience and how to handle the counter-attacks by India.

The South Africans would have learnt from the 2-7 drubbing that Japan received. For large portions of the match, Japan went on the counter like they had forgotten the art of possession. Time and again, they went on the offensive only for the ball to be snatched back, followed by an Indian counter that either led to goals or PCs — ten in number. South Africa can’t afford that against an Indian side high on skill and confidence now. Even if SA take an early lead or manage a goal, India have enough ammunition to come back and snatch the match.

If there is a chance that South Africa might closely look at, it is still the disorganised Indian forward line that can be forced under pressure. India scored seven goals against Japan and half that number were strikes coming off Japanese errors or off the third or fourth shot. In the end, the argument is always about scoring goals and not being bothered how they come about. Yet, in that space, if India are hustled early or with a five-man defence, they can be kept back. SA’s only chance is to keep the scoreboard quiet.

For India, the match is not just about winning a final. It’s important to clinch a title. But Graham Reid must be looking beyond. The immediate task is to grab an Olympic spot and that would happen after September when the rankings are announced, and India know their opponents in a best-of-two encounter. But whether these very players would go all the way is important. Dilpreet, Kothajit and Chinglensana would make a comeback. One still doesn’t know about SV Sunil. Ramandeep got two goals against Japan and at the same showed he is a multi-utility player; injecting in the PCs, flashing in the crosses and making those soft taps from the top of the circle. He flashed three crosses from the right flank — all three sped past the outstretched blades of Mandeep, Gursahibjit and Akashdeep.

South Africa would attack the indecision in the midfield also. Vivek, Sumit, Manpreet and Hardik at times get it all mixed up. Manpreet plays a parallel and moves up, creating space as he runs but the resultant pass is to the other corner. Vivek at times looks dangerous, his pace dramatic but the finish lacks vision. Yesterday, he flashed in a first timer and got a goal, India’s 7th, but the work rate in the field is not up to par.

The defence is secure against a team like South Africa, unless India are pushing players upfront as we saw against Japan. Harmanpreet and Surender, at times, were on each flank, stretching the defence. But the gaps at the back could have been exploited as the Japanese did twice. Amit Rohidas did tackle well but his decision-making at times is faulty. With three zones to clear a ball, he sometimes perplexingly passes into a guarded zone, losing the ball and giving the opponent a counterattack.

Rassie Pieterse, the goalkeeper, is in great form for South Africa. His saves off PCs and strikes have been exceptional. Harmanpreet and Varun have a battle on their hands against him. It would be interesting to see if Indian PC flicks are angular or high strikes into the net. It could also be that Chris Ciriello might ask the Indian PC battery to go in for indirect deflections to surprise Rassie.

It’s interesting to look at the figures from the last time that India played South Africa. India had a pass accuracy of 70 percent. But SA wasn’t far behind with 61 percent. That showed moves were flowing from both sides. The edge that India had was in the circle entries — 29 compared to 15 for SA. Out of that, India had 11 shots on goal to SA’s 5 shots. In terms of possession, India were 55 percent and SA 45 percent. Looking at the result, 5-0 for India was a fair reward.

Can things change around? Not much, but the game could be closer if South Africa defend and play clean hockey. They must keep an eye on Simranjeet Singh and Mandeep Singh; both are thirsting for goals, especially Mandeep. They haven’t been off colour but Mandeep is an all-out striker and not getting goals must be hurting. Simranjeet, like Lalit Upadhyay who is not here but was in the World Cup team, is a creator, working his way in with soft nudges, taps and dribbles. His being on the ball gives a huge amount of space to the others and they dart in and around to hustle the defence.

Graham Reid did say that he was satisfied with the display against Japan. But he wants the PCs to work better. “You have to wait and see (about final). I am not going to give away too much. It was good to see some different variations tonight (against Japan). It's also important PC flickers get their rhythm.” The Indian coach didn’t want to take the final for granted: “Finals are always different games,” he said. “We all have watched more than enough to know that finals are different from league games, the pressure is different. It's going to be a really interesting and a good challenge for us.”

These are early days for Graham Reid. For a team looking to qualify for Tokyo, winning consistently with comfortable margins is the way. Also, for Reid, he gets a look-in to the players which gives shape to the structure he would want looking at his philosophy as a coach. Reid’s job is also to pick the ‘real’ that at times gets buried in the superlative (7-2 against Japan). At 0-1 and 2-2 against the Japanese, mental strength manifested itself. Hopefully, against South Africa, it would be breezier.

Updated Date: Jun 15, 2019 15:34:54 IST