Four Nations Invitational Hockey: India's control in midfield, compact defence paved way for big win over Japan
On a windy day, interspersed with rain, India threw up a raft of ideas in the midfield, controlled the right flank and showed compactness in the defence which the Japanese couldn’t breach
India unveiled two new champion players, Vivek Prasad and Dilpreet Singh, who apart from making their debut for the senior squad also scored twice each in the 6-0 victory over Japan in the 4-Nation Invitational Hockey Tournament in Tauranga, New Zealand. On a windy day, interspersed with rain, India threw up a raft of ideas in the midfield, controlled the right flank and showed compactness in the defence which the Japanese couldn’t breach even with two penalty corners in the third quarter. For India, the scorers were Prasad (12th, 28th), Dilpreet (35th, 45th), Rupinder Pal Singh (7th) and Harmanpreet Singh (41st).
It was a brilliant and if one may say so, an auspicious start to what should be a defining year for Indian hockey with more than six tournaments thrown in. Priorities being the Commonwealth Games, Asian Games and the big one at the end of the year, the World Cup. All selections as the coach Sjoerd Marijne makes us believe are towards achieving that top podium finish at the Asian Games to ensure India is the first team to qualify for the 2020 Olympics and a possible podium finish at the World Cup in Bhubaneswar.
Team selection couldn’t have been more spot on with Indian captain Manpreet Singh getting a rest; the theory would have been that Japan wouldn’t test the Indian midfield or defence too much. It proved to be correct with Chinglensana wearing the captain’s arm band and doing a good job of ensuring that India played steadily and applied pressure right through.
Japan’s not a bad side and they are preparing for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Not so long back, at the last Azlan Shah, India had stretch itself to breaking point to beat them 4-3 and then in the same tournament the Japs beat World Champions Australia, a stunning result as that was the first time any Aussie side had lost to Japan. But India stormed back at the Asia Cup in Dhaka beating them 5-1.
It was also good to see India U19 cricket coach Rahul Dravid with the entire Indian team in attendance watching the hockey seniors. Dravid who has played schools hockey with former Olympian and World Cupper Anil Aldrin in Bengaluru must have been an inspiring presence for the national side.
Sreejesh played his first international match after being injured in the match against Australia at the 2017 Azlan Shah tournament. Since leaving the pitch in the first quarter of that match in May, last year, it was tremendous to see India’s best goalkeeper back in his spot; his first test in the match was a harmless hit from outside the Indian striking circle.
The opening goal came off a right flank move which resulted in a penalty corner with Rupinder’s flick hitting a Japanese defender on the hand. The resultant penalty stroke was flicked in causally by Rupinder in the 7th minute. Japan did try pressing through the left flank but the Indian midfield played up with the defenders, Rupinder and Harmanpreet not going back in deep. With not much space at play, Japan had to hold the ball and that is where they lacked. Control was missing and without possession, there wasn’t much that they could do to upset India.
Even with a decent structure at the back, Japan couldn’t sustain. And against an Indian team that plays with speed and pace, just defending for long stretches of time wasn’t really a tactic that could work. India increased the lead in the 12th minute when Rupinder Pal after moving up gave a parallel to Vivek Prasad who powered in and slammed it into goal. It was a debut goal for the youngster and one could see his delight. Named in the starting list for the match, Vivek also became the second youngest Indian to debut for the senior team at 17yrs, 10m and 22 days; the youngest was Sandeep Singh at 17yrs, 10m and 11 days — quite an achievement. In fact, India gave the senior cap to four players in the match — Prasad, Dilpreet, Krishan Pathak and Simranjeet Singh.
At the end of the 1st quarter, India led 2-0. The 2nd quarter played out almost similarly as the 1st with Japan trying to create some momentum and build through the middle but India kept pressing and pushing the Japanese into frantic defensive positions. India made it 3-0 in the 28th minute when Prasad with good anticipation moved into pick up a rebound and pushed it strongly into the Japanese goal. At the break after two quarters, India sat comfortable with a 3-0 lead.
The rains came in but the speed with which India played didn’t slip. Dilpreet, another youngster, was moving very well into spaces and it was a plucky reverse hit that saw the Japanese goalkeeper bring off a brilliant save. But within seconds, Dilpreet again had a rebound and he smashed it into goal for a 4-0 lead in the 35th minute. Sjoerd didn’t need Sreejesh in goal and so Krishan Pathak made his debut with Japan earning their 1st PC of the match. It was defended well and off a counter, India had their 2nd PC. At this moment of time, it was end to end. But whatever little life there was in Japan’s build-ups was snuffed out by Harmanpreet whose flick deflected of the goalkeeper’s pads, hit the defenders stick and went in. At 5-0, the match had been wrapped up. In the last match against Japan, in Dhaka, Harmanpreet had got the 4th and 5th goals in what was a 5-1 win. In two matches against Japan, Harmanpreet now has three goals, all of penalty corners.
Krishan Pathak made his first senior squad save when Japan had their 2nd penalty corner. The flick was low and Krishan had to stretch to his left but the deflection was brilliant. Meanwhile, Dilpreet was giving glimpses of his striking talent, hitting one reverse over the post and then after getting a slick pass from Mandeep, slamming it in for India’s 6th goal in the 45th minute. Japan had been rolled over. And there was still a quarter left.
In the 4th quarter, probably the only interest left was if India’s defence could be breached and Japan got a consolation goal. The other was if Vivek or Dilpreet could manage a hat-trick on their debut — a huge confidence booster. Japan did manage some moves down the left but yet again Surender and Harmanpreet were solid at the back. Harjeet Singh had a lovely through to Ramandeep who just couldn’t bury the shot into the Japanese goal. If India had a worry in the end it would have been the cards — Gurinder and Harjeet getting a green while Simranjeet Singh got a yellow; a debut yellow, really.
India have now played 78 matches against Japan winning 70 of those with four drawn and four losses. They have scored 289 goals and conceded 61. A former World Champion in Jhansi today would be ecstatic at India’s victory but more so at Vivek Sagar getting two goals. Ashok Kumar, the man who got India’s match-winner in the 75’ World Cup and also the man who picked up Vivek Sagar as a junior said on the day Vivek got selected for the senior side: “He is a unique player. I have given him my blessings to play well and told him to play like he will become a great player. I have given him a few of my skills and I know his game.” With that brace in India’s 6-0 victory, Vivek has taken those few steps forward, hopefully in becoming a more accomplished player.
The Indian women's hockey core group had returned to the national camp in Bengaluru on Sunday last to restart the preparations for the Tokyo Olympics after a 10-day break.
The six other India players are Savita Punia, Sharmila Devi, Rajani, Navjot Kaur, Navneet Kaur and Sushila while the two support staff are video analyst Amrutaprakash and scientific advisor Wayne Lombard.
Kaushik, a member of the 1980 Moscow Olympics gold-medal winning Indian team, had tested positive for COVID-19 on 17 April and was admitted to a nursing home in New Delhi.