With one foot outside the final, the baggage of a tight draw where tactically they seemed outplayed by South Korea, India could only recalibrate—play with flair, show sublime skills and get the goals. They did all three as Malaysia, looking for their third consecutive win over India, were a team stuck in the past.
Apart from that opening salvo in the first few seconds, Malaysia were dismantled quarter by quarter. It was only late in the fourth quarter, when India led 5-0, that Malaysia created attacks, winning penalty corners before getting two goals.
In the end, the 6-2 scoreline firmly established the story that if India play possession hockey, open up their shoulders and give wind to the sails of the forwards, goals do come. The brilliant part of this victory was not only the setting up of the goals, but also the fact that six different players were involved. In the end, India coach Sjoerd Marinje, relief written all over his face, said, “It’s very positive that six different players got the goals as that makes it extremely difficult for the opponent to zero in on just one or two players.”
In modern hockey, the less the errors, the more control you have over the opponent. That was exactly what India did. Manpreet Singh, playing deep in the match against Korea, was today two steps ahead. Sumit was not among the goal scorers, yet displayed such control on the flanks and in the middle that Malaysia were starved off the ball. Even Varun Kumar, who must have taken hell for the error against Korea, played with such panache, strength and muscular vigour that Malaysia wilted whenever he moved up with the ball.
Akashdeep had a few misses against South Korea in the first quarter. But on Thursday, he held the ball, controlled the pass and allowed attacks to build. After India messed up their first penalty corner, it seemed that the demons were back. But a lovely movement between Lalit Upadhyay and Ramandeep Singh—even though Lalit’s final shot was weak—established the fact that they wouldn’t be short on rhythm. The midfield with Manpreet and Chinglensana Singh was providing stable support and it was the captain’s long hit that saw Akashdeep Singh trap and swing it into the Malaysian goal.
It wasn’t that Malaysia were only defending. But with numbers being thrown back as India attacked, the few balls that found their way into the Indian half, lacked forwards to try and find an equaliser. Yet Rosli Ramadan was smack in the middle of the Indian striking circle. But trying to hit a fast cross on the run and that too sideways requires a special talent.
Malaysia had a penalty corner which was saved before India got two in a row and Harmanpreet Singh powered his best flick of the tournament past Malaysian goalkeeper Kumar Subramiam. At 2-0, the breaks were clearly falling for the Indians as Suraj Karkera saved the second Malaysian penalty corner. India regrouped as they rotated the ball all over the pitch. A clearly frustrated Malaysia were losing structure as India found the gaps on the flanks.
SK Uthappa found form and a goal when a ball sent into the Malaysian striking circle rebounded off a Malaysian stick to find him perfectly positioned. A deft shot beat Subramiam on the corner. India led 3-0 at the break and Malaysia were now seriously in danger of conceding more as India controlled the match.
Three minutes after the break another breakaway move by Akashdeep saw Gurjant Singh fire the goal in. Then, a Sardar Singh hit from the left flank saw the ball fly into the Malaysian goal off Sunil’s stick. At 5-0, the door had been bolted shut for Malaysia. Akashdeep also came back to pick up balls from the midfield ensuring some lovely moves between Lalit, Ramandeep, Gurjant and Sunil.
Till the third quarter, India held the match by the scruff of the neck. Sumit, still the initiator and also the player who destroyed Malaysian moves in the midfield, grew in the match. Incidentally, it was in the 1-0 2017 Azlan Shah defeat against Malaysia that he played his best hockey. At least, on Thursday his best play of the tournament came against an opponent that he would have relished to be on the winning side.
The Malaysian coach Van Huizen was happy that even with five goals down his team didn’t give up and kept looking for the goals. “That’s a positive thing for us,” he said. “In the fourth quarter, probably India relaxed but we still went on looking to get a few consolation goals.”
India didn’t relax but that control and dexterity that they showed in the first three quarters deserted them for some time. Simple traps, pushes and passes went to the Malaysian sticks and on the sidelines, India coach Marinje was getting frustrated and upset. No coach would want to gift goals to the opposition and India in a way did gift wrap them to Malaysia.
First a penalty corner, Malaysia’s fifth, went in off Akash Chikte’s stick. It was here that Malaysia had four penalty corners in a row, eight in all, that rattled the Indian defence. And then suddenly off a free ball in the Indian striking circle with no defender in sight, Rosli Ramadan shot in for Malaysia to cut the score to 2-5.
Victory almost wrapped up, India made a final attack with Sardar the initiator and playing in tandem with Gurjant before getting the ball and hitting a brilliant reverse shot, falling at the same time, past the shell-shocked Malaysian goalkeeper. Almost the entire team fell over Sardar in delight recognising the run that came from the former captain. Maybe those few critics who keep pointing at his age and say that his best is over will now take a step back.
Marinje said ‘speed’ was the difference between the 1-1 draw against South Korea and the huge win against Malaysia. “But we still need to think about the next match against Pakistan as we still need a win to take a place in the final.”
India top the four-team pool with four points, while Malaysia have three, South Korea two and Pakistan one. If India beat Pakistan on Saturday, they walk straight into the final with seven points and the winner between Malaysia and defending champions South Korea take them on. But the entire table can be thrown upside down if Pakistan somehow carve out a win and Malaysia draw with Korea. Goal averages would then come into play.
With the win over Malaysia, India keep their Asia Cup record against them spotless. According to hockey statistician, BG Joshi, India have played Malaysia seven times in the Asia Cup, winning six and drawing once.
Overall, India have played 115 matches, winning 80 of them, drawing 17 with Malaysia winning 18. It’s a proud record and one that got enhanced at the Maulana Bhashani Hockey Stadium. In a display full of grit, power and some sublime skills, does the captain Manpreet feel slightly vindicated? “Of course, but we still have work to do, play Pakistan and reach the final.” In a season of shifting momentums, nothing would give more happiness and delight to the hockey fan than India winning their last two matches here at the Asia Cup.
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Updated Date: Oct 20, 2017 13:29:33 IST