Hockey World League Semi-finals: Arch-rivals India, Pakistan aim to distill spirit of sport into art
When India and Pakistan walk out under a bright, shining sun at the Lee Valley Hockey Centre in their Hockey World League Semi-finals Pool B clash, it’s a fresh start.
India’s Dutch hockey coach Roelant Oltmans is one of a kind. He believes one day hockey will be more popular than cricket. But for those who know Oltmans, it’s that siege mentality when confronted with a question that nine miles to the West of London’s Olympic Park, another India-Pakistan match, cricket at that, is hogging all the limelight. The second one being the final of a major event. Indian hockey on the other hand plays a Pool B match with Pakistan in the Hockey World League Semi-finals.
Pakistan coach Khawaja Muhammad Junaid is under a different kind of siege. Two consecutive losses, especially the 0-6 thrashing at the hands of Canada have put the Pakistan hockey team and Junaid’s job under some real pressure. India, come into this match with six points and two consecutive victories. Their 3-0 win against Canada showing a yawning gap between the gameplan of Pakistan, and the one that India adopted against Canada.
Yet, when both the teams walk out under a bright, shining sun (weather predicting) at the Lee Valley Hockey Centre, it’s a fresh start. “All talks about strength go out of the window,” says Oltmans. “An India-Pakistan match brings with it much more than just skills and a better game plan.” In the November of 2016 at the Asian Champions Trophy in Kuantan (Malaysia) India played Pakistan twice, once in the Pool and then in the final and both times the score-line was 3-2 in India’s favour. Pakistan was engaging till the last minute with the Indian defence on their toes, alert till the hooter had sounded making the issue safe.
“I know you are guys are writing us Off,” says Junaid with a smile. “But I have forgotten what happened in the previous matches. Against India, it’s a new day and the players will focus on the India match and not dwell on the past.” It’s not an ominous warning from Junaid. But against India, a little bit of bravado sounds good back home. “It’s not the skill factor I am worried about,” says Oltmans. “It’s the emotional bit that makes the match interesting but also at times freezes the players. That needs looking into.”
Former Indian captain and the man who came onto the scoreboard against Canada, Sardar Singh, can’t wait to take on Pakistan. “It’s one match we are looking forward to and we will have a game plan. In fact, we need to stick to what we do well and that is controlling the flow of the game. But Pakistan, as always, will raise their game against us.” Sardar remembers the 2010 World Cup and Commonwealth Games against Pakistan and that too a side which was better than the one that will walk out against India today. In the 2010 Commonwealth Games, India beat Pakistan 7-4 and then 4-1 in the World Cup. Needless to say, Sardar is the only surviving member of that team.
Unlike in the past, India puts a lot of emphasis on controlling the game. Right from the start, the defence and the midfield rotate the ball making the opponents come after them. The simple result is the creation of space. But to the opponents, it’s also a period of frustration where they are chasing the ball, creating errors which the Indians can capitalise on; exactly the game plan that paid off so well against Canada. Pakistan, as Junaid points out, had more opportunities in the striking circle than Canada — 18 to Canada’s 11. Yet, Canada won 6-0. It’s something that India will speak about in the team meeting.
Even Oltmans agrees that the Pakistan-Canada match was lopsided from the statistics point of view. “But a team needs to score,” emphasises Oltmans. That’s one area where India have been doing well — putting the ball into goal. With seven goals against Scotland and Canada, Indian strikers are effective. But the real strength for India is their positioning on the field. Akashdeep is in brilliant form creating lovely subtle moves that opens up the middle of the striking circle for Sunil and Ramandeep. Even Ramandeep, criticised for long, has been playing with strength, battering away with moves that split the defences. His move against Canada was classic strength and pace that tore apart the Canadian defence ending with a deft flick to the right creating the opportunity for Sardar to score.
India does fall back on rotation to catch breath and also psychologically hammer away at the opponents. In the second quarter of the match against Canada, for almost a minute and a half, India held the ball as Canada ran all over the pitch. Losing the ball gives the opponents a chance to rebuild and that is what India tries and avoids. But in a sport like hockey, attacks from the opponents can’t just be wished away. This Pakistan team may have an average age of 21 and also miss the services of three of their players who play in the European League — Rashid Mehmood, Muhammad Rizwan Sr and Farid. But as a team they will toughen up against India; Ajaz Ahmad has the skills and verve to beat defences. Pakistan’s glaring weakness is their defence under Tasawar Abbas, Abu Mahmood and Muhammad Mushtaq. All three were opened up against Canada with high balls, Canada scoring from two of them. India will keep that in mind.
India’s biggest strength lies in their midfield, which is a sheer delight to watch when on a song under Manpreet, Sumit, Sardar and Chinglensana. Sumit, arrived just a couple of days, replacing SK Uthappa and he should do well on Sunday. He has the guile, much needed for some playing as right half and also inter-changing as central midfielder. Manpreet has been playing well and with his bursts of speed, the forwards are always expecting pacy crosses into the striking circle. Sardar may have scored a goal against Canada. But that control and authority has been lacking, though his defensive skills have stood out.
Chinglensana better check the soles of his hockey shoes. He has been one of the players with the highest output in the team. Against Canada, he was holding the midfield, running down the left flank and then setting up balls in the opposition striking circle and on the counter attack, back in the Indian defence. Indian captain P Sreejesh’s absence with an injury may be a blessing in disguise as it has given Vikas Dahiya exposure at this level. The Junior World Cup goalkeeper played the entire match against Canada, even though he had a baptism by fire for allowing Scotland to open the scoring against India. Oltmans had said then, after the match, that ‘Dahiya will play more matches in the tournament.’
The equations of an India-Pakistan match are not difficult to visualise. Open spaces, wave like attacks, at times jettisoning the structure that is so important in modern hockey. “I will try and keep the emotions at bay,” said Oltmans. “It’s important to win matches. Not get swayed by the occasion.” Oltmans has seen both sides of the spectrum. He was also coach of the Pakistan 2004 Athens Olympics team. So he understands the line ‘duress under emotion’.
Junaid understands the enormity of the task at hand. A defeat at the hands of India will put him under the microscope. “I will try that we win or at least play a better game than the one we displayed against Canada.” On Sunday, India takes on Pakistan in what is the 168th match between the two sides. Pakistan has won more games, 82 to India’s 55; 30 matches have been drawn. For those who will fill up the seats, the neutrals wanting a good match, to those who believe the spirit of hockey still survives between the boundaries of India and Pakistan, they will also believe that both these nations will distill that spirit into art.
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