FIH Series Finals 2019: Varun Kumar, Harmanpreet Singh blitz robs game of drama as India coast to victory over South Africa

In a start quite rare for India in a final, the 2nd and 11th minute strikes off consecutive PCs closed the door on South Africa, and at the same time ensured India jog its way to the finish, as they closed the match out 5-1 in front of a packed Kalinga stadium. The opening sequence by Varun Kumar and Harmanpreet Singh robbed the match of drama and it was only a late flourish in the 4th quarter that saw South Africa make some concerted moves.

After the Sultan Azlan Shah final loss to South Korea a few months ago, this win in the FIH Men’s Series Finals would heal wounds in the Indian camp.

If ever there was a chance of a close-fought encounter, it was possible with South Africa keeping a tight defensive structure at the back with Richard Pautz and Nqobile Ntuli roaming upfront dragging away two defenders; that space could have been exploited. But in the 1st and 2nd quarter because of the early goals, pressure at the back couldn’t make the South Africans be too adventurous upfront.

India had brought in Gurjant Singh, the centre-forward in place of the injured midfielder Sumit. The Indian coach Graham Reid said, “This can happen during tough matches, Sumit sustained a complex fracture of the right hand in the match against Japan.”

Manpreet Singh had the first strike on the South African striking circle which led to the first penalty corner in the 2nd minute. Varun’s flick to the left-hand corner of Pieterse Rassie was low and swift, giving the SA goalkeeper no chance. Within minutes, Surender Kumar had moved up but the smart flick couldn’t be tapped in by Mandeep Singh. India was holding the midfield, not allowing SA to create moves. Time and again, India used the flanks to stretch and then laid out the crosses.

 FIH Series Finals 2019: Varun Kumar, Harmanpreet Singh blitz robs game of drama as India coast to victory over South Africa

The opening sequence by Varun Kumar and Harmanpreet Singh robbed the match of drama. Image Courtesy: The Hockey India

The second PC came in the 11th minute and Harmanpreet was on target with his flick. Leading 2-0, the curtains were being drawn on the SA performance. It’s never difficult to come back from a 0-2 deficit in a hockey game. In fact, earlier in the day, USA had equalised 2-2 in the 59th minute against Japan. But Kenta Tanaka scored twice in the 60th minute to ensure Japan won 4-2 and finish third.

South Africa, however, was caught between the devil and the deep sea. If they were to move up, leaving gaps, India would kill them. If they stayed back and built a structure, India still had enough skill to get a few more goals. SA opted for the latter which would have kept the scores respectable. On this same ground in December 2018, India had smashed SA 5-0 in the World Cup.

If there was a man disappointed after the 1st quarter, it was the South African goalkeeper Rassie, who did position himself well, but PCs can sometimes slip away from a goalkeeper and that is exactly what happened on the 2nd Indian PC.

In the second quarter, SA kept possession and rotated the ball. They used the width of the midfield trying to keep the ball away from India. In that period, they also came close to scoring when Pautz and Ntuli almost got the sequence right but too many sticks deflected the ball away. The defensive wall had been built. Unable to crack it, India rotated the ball back, looking for a gap from which they could slip it into SA’s striking circle.

That opportunity came when Birendra Lakra, head down, zig-zagged into the SA striking circle and was about to take a shot when he was stick-checked. The resultant stroke was flicked in by Harmanpreet Singh, his 2nd goal of the match. At 3-0, the doors were closing on the match. South Africa needed a goal to put some pressure on India. At the end of the 2nd quarter, India led 3-0 with 13 circle penetrations compared to 5 for South Africa. India had six shots on goal with 80 percent possession.

India cruised through the match, and never really looked like they would be tested. Image Courtesy: The Hockey India

India cruised through the match, and never really looked like they would be tested. Image Courtesy: The Hockey India

At the start of the 3rd quarter, Pautz had another opportunity, a wide gap to the left but the reverse hit was in haste as the ball went over the Indian goal post. SA was trying to comeback. But the chances were few and far between.

It was a Mandeep move that set up India’s 4th goal in the 35th minute. A deft pass to Simranjeet who made his way through a slew of sticks and as the ball rolled free, Vivek Sagar slapped a reverse shot past the SA goalkeeper.
India, lacking intensity just that bit still rotated the ball and shot in the crosses. But like so many match days for Mandeep, it still wasn’t happening for him. Crosses sizzled across the SA goalmouth and Mandeep kept trying the deflection. It was almost like the ball and Mandeep’s stick had a sour relationship. In such situations, players do often try and dominate the ball trying to find that goal that could set up a momentum. Not Mandeep, who kept finding opportunities for PCs and tapping the ball to better placed teammates.

India’s fifth goal came in the 49th minute. Harmanpreet sold a dummy, slipping the ball to Varun Kumar whose flick powered into the SA goal. At 5-0, there was only one result in the match. It was also SA’s best period in the match when they earned three PCs in the 4th quarter. Off the second, Jethro Eustice flicked to the left as the hard working Pautz deflected in a beautiful goal. In the 53rd minute, it was 5-1.

In the dying minutes, both India and SA had a PC each; India’s 5th PC was saved by the SA goalkeeper while SA’s 3rd PC was brilliantly trapped by Surender who stood in front of Sreejesh.

At the post-match press conference, Graham Reid said: “I think what I am pleased with is the last two matches, where it really counted. We played well. Yesterday (against Japan) was very good, today was good in parts.”

Speaking on the tournament, Reid, said, “I never put an upper limit on something. We should always get better. From the point of PC conversion, all our flickers did well in this event. The great thing is we are creating opportunities. Next phase is to ensure we convert those percentages.”

India secured their participation in the Tokyo 2020 qualifiers by reaching the finals. Twitter@sports_odisha

India secured their participation in the Tokyo 2020 qualifiers by reaching the finals. Twitter@sports_odisha

In the tournament, India scored 35 goals and conceded four. The next stage is the important one where the Indian team plays a four-nation in Japan and possibly goes to Europe. Graham Reid has won his first tournament as coach. But even he won’t do cartwheels on this success. More than anything, Reid must be a stabilising influence on this Indian side that has seen too many come through the door promising to show them Eden. On the contrary, slow and steady progress should see the Indian team reach Tokyo 2020.

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Updated Date: Jun 16, 2019 08:50:43 IST