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Hockey Asia Cup 2017: India's victory over Pakistan came despite them playing far from their best hockey

Domination of territory and possession do look good for sports analytics but when it comes to stamping your class on an opponent whose tactical acumen kept margins low and leveraged opportunities, the 3-1 win for India is a deep disappointment for a team that started as if sitting on a jet propeller and finished like an auto ride through jam-packed Dhaka.

Process, system, structure are words that are routinely used to describe modern hockey and India did begin with all the bricks in the right place. Pakistan, on the other hand, didn’t want a repeat of what happened at the Hockey World League in London — two consecutive losses of 7-1 and 6-1 rupturing national pride and leading to entire management teams getting sacked. So they waited with a lone forward upfront, patiently looking for a gap, a slip or a miss-pass. Those did come at regular intervals in the 1st quarter but Pakistan’s hand quivered more at the thought of scoring against India.

 Hockey Asia Cup 2017: Indias victory over Pakistan came despite them playing far from their best hockey

India players celebrate a goal against Pakistan. Image courtesy: Twitter/@Hockey India

India broke through a slow Pakistan midfield, stretching the field wide. At times, it almost seemed that India had more players on the turf, the speed on the counters making them looking like locusts in flight but eating away at the Pakistan goal wasn’t happening. Akashdeep Singh, Lalit Upadhyay, Ramandeep Singh, SV Sunil, powered their way through but the last touch, the killer strike, the tap, the strongly-struck final shot was missing.

Pakistan goalkeeper Mazhar Abbas must have wondered about the speed of the Indian forwards, but would have heaved a sigh of relief as they imploded despite territory and space at their command.  Meanwhile, Farhat Khan, the Pakistan manager, would have surely jumped in glee if their first penalty corner in the 1st quarter had come off. Tactically, it was a good one. But we pay obeisance only if they work out.

Frustrated a bit by not able to score, India rotated the ball all over the pitch. Struck from flank to flank, Pakistan did all the running while India searched for the gaps. Eventually, it came from the right flank where Akashdeep was like a figure skater, skimming and shimmying past the Pakistan defenders.

In the 17th minute, he had the ball and sweetly dodged a defender to throw the ball into the Pakistan striking circle where Chinlensana Singh was powering in from the middle. It was a one-to-one situation with Pakistan goalkeeper Abbas and Chinglensana made no mistake as he hammered the ball in.

Leading 1-0, Pak defences opened up for the first time, it seemed India had found the measure. And somewhere, the thought also lurked that Pakistan may crumble. But they tightened their defence and didn’t let the younger minds melt away. They struck to their structure and patiently waited. In keeping the flock together, Pakistan captain Muhammad Irfan had already won a mini-war.

Gurjant Singh, who made a name for himself in the 2016 Junior World Cup winning team, was all fire but his reverse shot couldn’t beat Abbas. India were guilty of firing in thinking that the ball had a mind of its own and would find itself in the back of the Pakistan goal. None of them thought that a first touch instead of hanging onto the ball is what would have paid dividends.

The Indian defence was leaving gaps and even Harmanpreet Singh made errors. Pakistan wasted a 2nd penalty corner and then Mohammed Attiq’s shot from hand-shaking distance was saved by Suraj Karkera. If India looked good while attacking, they seemed shaky at the back.

At the break, India were ahead by a goal but that was never going to be enough against a team that came determined to play till the last minute. In goal, India brought in Akash Chikte and he celebrated his entry in the match with a lovely save. India also earned a penalty corner, their first and Varun Kumar promptly sent it out with a low flick.

India were steadily losing their control while Pakistan were regaining lost ground. A Gurjant-Akashdeep move that had goal written all over it couldn’t find a finishing touch. Gurjant’s final tap was a soft roll that the goalkeeper had enough time to save even after being beaten at his near post.

Pakistan, meanwhile, wasted their 3rd penalty corner. And then Harmanpreet with a brilliant through-ball that was 50 yards off found Ramandeep Singh virtually inside the Pakistan goal mouth and all he had to do was tap it in for India’s 2nd goal.

Leading 2-0, some calm was restored inside the Indian team. And in the next very minute, off their 2nd penalty corner, Harmanpreet powered his flick in. At 3-0, it seemed that the door had been shut on Pakistan.

But India brought them back into the match. They lost patience and tried to force the issue. Suddenly, the team had become the individual. One-touch balls were hung onto. Passes were delayed as Pakistan rushed to close gaps. And India went through the middle instead of around the defence.

It was a clear case of a lack of discipline. Sumit, Lalit, Sunil all did try and weave their magic. In the 33rd minute of the match, two Pakistan players were shown the yellow card but India didn’t take the initiative when the opposition was down to nine men. Then suddenly in the 49th minute, India threw it away, though momentarily.

Sardar Singh, till then an ocean of calm, hung on to the ball in the Indian defence and when he flicked a pass he ended up giving it to a Pakistani forward who immediately dispatched it to Shan Ali, standing in a perfect scoring position. Chikte was beaten with the score cut to 1-3.

India's Ramandeep Singh reacts after scoring against Pakistan. Image courtesy: Neeraj Tiwari

India's Ramandeep Singh reacts after scoring against Pakistan. Image courtesy: Neeraj Tiwari

Another goal at this stage and India would have had it hard. Pakistan had a 4th penalty corner which Chikte saved. Then India had three consecutive penalty corners which were wasted. Penalty corners are now a matter of concern even though the team management is soft-pedalling on the issue.

In the end, play was held up for around two minutes as Pakistan went to the video umpire on a few decisions. It’s also time the FIH looked at speeding up video referrals. By stopping play for more than a minute, the pace is killed and the team looking for goals seems to be getting a raw deal.

The Indian captain Manpreet Singh was very clear that the team was hugely disappointed with the result. “We are happy we won but the team as a whole is disappointed with the way we played today. It’s not about the scoreline but that we didn’t play as a unit and neither did we utilise the chances and worked as a team.”

The Indian coach Sjoerd Marijne said there were long faces after the match. “I am happy that the team is not happy with what happened today,” he explained. “It’s good to see that they are not just happy winning. They want to play well too.”

The Dutchman also explained that India want to play their best hockey. “But today wasn’t good,” he said. “We needed more time to control the ball and then we started running with the ball which is not done.”

Marijne also said that the speed of the ball was too low. “The boys kept the ball too long. In fact, it starts with the defence and only then the space upfront is opened up.”

Marijne said that they would meet up soon and speak about it. “I am happy we won,” he said. “But I need to know what’s happening and why did it happen? This is the moment for the leadership to come up in the team and explain. I need to know what’s in their mind as only then can I help them.”

With nine points, India enter the Super 4 with Pakistan from Pool A. South Korea and Malaysia are the other teams in Pool B to make it to the Super 4.

In other words, the tournament begins now and teams with a high press, India and Malaysia, will also have to keep a water-tight defence if it comes down to the opposition counter-attacking. India have shown they are vulnerable at the back; but only if they try and hang onto the ball.

At the end of the match, India had 16 shots at goal to Pakistan’s nine while India had 24 circle entries to Pakistan’s 13. But the truth is that the ball was not relayed swiftly and neither was the high press destroying the opponent. The talent and the structure is there but it will be a while before Marijne’s ideas are given full form.

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Updated Date: Oct 16, 2017 14:20:19 IST

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