Hockey World League Semi-Finals 2017: Rudderless India consumed by a hungry Malaysia

While pieces fell perfectly into place for a resurgent Malaysian hockey team, disorder and anxiety ruled the Indian side as they collapsed 2-3 in what was the only shock quarter-final result of the Hockey World League Semi-Final. In world hockey’s order of things, Malaysia came in at No 14 and India at No 6, a yawning gap of eight spots.

Yet Malaysia played with more hunger and a yearning which reflected on the pitch. India came in with a reputation. And there it ended. Sport, admittedly, at the end of the day is about winning and losing but into that mix come planning, tactics and strategy. For moments in the match and sometimes seemingly interminable stretches, India looked rudderless, as clueless as a sprinter asked to run a middle distance event. They controlled the start and then suddenly lost the plot. Malaysia sensed the confusion and they did what they do best – stretch the flanks, speed through the midfield, creating confusion and mayhem.

 Hockey World League Semi-Finals 2017: Rudderless India consumed by a hungry Malaysia

Action in the quarters of HWL 2017 between India and Malaysia. Image courtesy: Twitter/ @TheHockeyIndia

For a World No 6 team and favourites in the match, the normal thing would have been to backpedal, lie back on the ropes, absorb the initial blows and slowly take control. India did just the opposite. They exposed the defence and went into attack. Malaysia used the spaces and earned two penalty corners; both wasted. But doubts had been created in the minds of the Indians. If they came into the match thinking they would ride on talent and skill, they were surprised by a Malaysian side who wanted to fight all the way.

A day before, Malaysian coach, Stephen van Huizen, said, “We will play tight and try and take India to a shoot-out. There is only one team that is the favourite and that is India.” Van Huizen’s plan was falling into place. By the second quarter, India had started pushing hard from the midfield. Malaysia responded with high balls. It was like lobbing someone in a tennis match. The first high ball found Malaysian forward Tajuddin Tengku, trapping it well and finding only the Indian goalkeeper Vikas Dahiya in front. But the tap was saved by Dahiya. Yet another scoop gave Malaysia their third penalty corner, and Rahim Razie’s flick beat Dahiya. India was a goal down. Exactly, a minute later, off a melee, Malaysia had their fourth penalty corner. And they went for an indirect penalty corner, Razie’s hit was flat towards the outstretched stick of Tengku and suddenly in the space of one minute, India was staring at a 0-2 deficit.

India coach Roelant Oltmans pushed the team upwards and Malaysia, with a two goal cushion, relaxed a bit. India went onto the flanks, missed a few chances before Sumit on the left flank hit strongly into the Malaysian striking circle. Ramandeep Singh was on the spot with a deflection. Akashdeep also had an opportunity but the shot was checked at the last second and the Malaysian defender was there to clear. India had their first penalty corner in the 26th minute and it was saved and cleared. But the ball came back into the striking circle. Chinglensana Singh shot towards the Malaysian goal as goalkeeper Subramiam Kumar took it on the pads. With a flash, Ramandeep was there to flick it into the goal. At 2-2, India seemed to be right on top.

At the start of the third quarter, possession was India’s. They were on the flanks as the midfield was non-existent. Sardar Singh did his best which wasn’t enough while Harjeet Singh did some smart play in the second quarter before fading away in the third. Overall, India lost the contest in the middle where dominance was necessary to pressurise the Malaysians. Too much dribble, overplay in the circle and no snap shots gave the Malaysian defence the breathing space they needed. Forwards like Akashdeep Singh, Mandeep Singh, and Sunil stayed on the ball not willing to try shots or even earn penalty corners. Sunil, time and again, raced in from the right flank and went too long before being deprived of the ball. Time was moving and India was under self-induced duress.

By now, the match was at its tipping point. Malaysia’s fifth penalty corner hit Manpreet Singh on the wrist as the umpire pointed for a sixth. Manpreet referred it to the video umpire who overruled letting the penalty corner stand. Razie scored his second of the match with a flick that beat Akash Chikte who had been brought in after the break. At 3-2, Malaysia had the upper hand with 12 minutes left in the match. At the 2017 Sultan Azlan Shah Cup, Malaysia had also scored in the fourth quarter to hold off the Indians and win the match.

What followed was a maddening rush towards the Malaysian goal. India electrified the midfield to an extent. But the forwards, even though reaching the Malaysian striking circle, were not holding the ball. Anxious to get an equaliser, they pushed towards the wrong player or moved the ball into ineffective zones. Mandeep, a virtual passenger in the match and in the tournament had the ball with space in front. But he tried to be cute with a deflection that rushed past the post. Akashdeep also tried twice to take reverse hits but the Malaysian goalkeeper was in no mood to be beaten.

For the first time in Europe, Malaysia had beaten India. For the first time in their hockey history, Malaysia had beaten India in consecutive matches; the last being the 1-0 victory at the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup. It was also sweet revenge for losing the 2015 Hockey World League quarter-final in Antwerp.

The Malaysian coach praised his players saying they rose to the occasion. “We needed to put India under pressure and we did. But they did come back,” said van Huizen. “I told my players to hold the third quarter and somehow try and not let India score. We were successful as India was under pressure and then we closed the match with the match-winner.”

Oltmans said the result was unfair as Malaysia’s sixth penalty corner had come off Manpreet’s hand and the ball was above the knees. Technically, a dangerous ball. Oltmans probably forgot that the video umpire allowed it and that the replays clearly showed that Manpreet was bending down when the ball hit his wrist. “We started badly and came back and then the match-winner came off the penalty corner which in my opinion was wrong,” said Oltmans.

India’s Dutch coach did react angrily when a reporter suggested that India were outplayed. “Outplayed? No way,” Oltmans said. “This is the biggest nonsense I have heard. Look at our possession.”

Malaysia’s technical director Terry Walsh, a former Indian coach himself, was grinning like a Cheshire cat after the match. Though he didn’t want to be drawn into a conversation about the match, he did say, “Malaysia did the talking on the pitch.”

Oltmans said he was focusing on the Asia Cup and then the Hockey World League Finals in India. But that shouldn’t stop him from examining India’s fragilities. Defeats are insightful; India’s lack of innovation, creativity and ingenuity was glaringly exposed.

Updated Date: Jun 23, 2017 16:45:36 IST