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Sultan Azlan Shah Cup 2017: Bronze-winning India have quality but they need to be stronger and more resilient

Sport can at times be an epitome of absurdity. And it was evident here at the Azlan Shah Hockey Stadium in Ipoh on a cloudy, drizzly Saturday. A day before, on Friday, India looked lost, jaded and played like a team that preferred the beach to the synthetic turf. They didn’t lose; they were humiliated 0-1 by Malaysia. With nothing but pride at stake, India turned out against New Zealand, a bronze medal match, and played like a poker player who knew his opponent’s cards inside out. Incisive, intelligent, skillful, this changed India dismantled New Zealand 4-0. Maybe, when they look at their medals, the team would wonder at the contrast of their play within a span of 24 hours.

Indian players congratulate Rupinder Pal Singh after he scored against New Zealand. Image courtesy: Twitter/ @HockeyIndia

Indian players congratulate Rupinder Pal Singh after he scored against New Zealand. Image courtesy: Twitter/ @HockeyIndia

The absurdity continued later in the evening when Great Britain who had won the title 23 years back in Penang and through the tournament never seemed inclined to be rated as favourites, decided ‘let’s play hockey’. They played three forwards up front, a packed midfield and a defence that looked as solid as the Alcatraz.

The British played at a level which even the world champions Australians couldn’t match. They did come back into the game and were constantly a threat but the British wanted to win badly on this Saturday Ipoh night. The scoreline of 4-3 in favour of Great Britain hopefully taught India a lesson in desire, ambition and the need to prepare and play for a win.

Against New Zealand, India started like always — confident, rotating the ball. They were clearly not fluid enough in the early stages but rather than give the initiative to the Kiwis, they kept the ball ensuring that the build-up was to their advantage. No loose balls were seen as the Kiwis, starved of space, disintegrated. India took a firm grip on the match.

Yet in moments, they seemed not as one unit but different parts of the same team. Harjeet Singh, Sardar Singh and Manpreet Singh played well but when the substitutions kicked in, it took the team a while to get started. Surender Kumar was steady on Saturday not the jittery mess he was against Malaysia. But the man who should have got the man-of-the-match was the youngster Sunil. He was the engine of the team. Driving forward, falling back, playing as an extended right half, he mesmerised the Kiwis with his sharp pace cutting into the New Zealand striking circle with the ease of an orchestra conductor.

Rupinder Pal Singh came back into form scoring off India’s 1st and 4th penalty corners. On the flick for the 4th goal, he was falling yet held himself to ensure the ball beat Kiwi goalkeeper Richard Joyce. Leading 2-0, India were in the driver’s seat. Except for a few mis-passes, Sardar played a good game, especially in the 3rd and 4th quarter where his presence in the central midfield stretched the game on the flanks.

Harjeet was a good foil and Manpreet, captain of the day, time and again entered the Kiwi striking circle. In the last few matches, Akashdeep Singh had looked tired. On Saturday, the classical action was back and he did a few deft turns ensuring a couple of penalty corners. In the second quarter, he dribbled past the same defender thrice; a victim of vertigo.

New Zealand did try and make a compelling 3rd quarter. India had to defend and they did well. In the 4th quarter, SV Sunil, finally found space in the middle of the Kiwi striking circle. Mandeep Singh sped in from the right flank, crossed and on the run Sunil deflected it in for the third goal.

India led 3-0 and fans wished it had happened a day earlier. Talwinder Singh desperately searching for goals and form found it in the 60th minute when his reverse hit sped past Richard Joyce in the Kiwi goal. India had won 4-0. Earlier in the league, the Kiwis had been beaten 3-0.

India coach Roelant Oltmans, slightly on the defensive after the defeat against Malaysia, now seemed satisfied. “Our defence was very good today,” he said. “We did not give away any penalty corners to New Zealand. But there are lessons we learnt and one of them according to our statistics is that we should have scored more goals in this tournament.”

Asked about the areas of improvement, Oltmans, said, “I don’t believe in negatives. I look at positives such as how we can improve in executions of penalty corners and in other areas to move forward. We tried out some variables.” The Indian coach who has a mandate till the Tokyo 2020 Olympics also emphasised that India was playing in tournaments in Germany and Holland and that they would be used to prepare for the World League Semi-Finals and Final.

Finals are usually torturous affairs. Especially if a team decides that playing a packed defence would yield results and swift counter-attacks. But Great Britain were different. The British brought a flair that hasn’t been seen in a while; Bob Crutchley, himself, would have been surprised. They attacked in waves, defended solidly and ran on the flanks like Olympic sprinters doing the bend.

Australia had players like Tom Craig and Trent Mitton, both on five goals each. But the ones who impressed were Alan Forsyth and David Goodfield. It was Crutchley’s innovativeness that made GB take their first penalty corner as an indirect conversion. The speed of the encounter was enthralling. In the middle, Britain, more as a tactical weapon, slowed the pace to eat up vital seconds and give their guys a breather.

It’s one of those remarkable happenings that Australia lost two matches on consecutive days; one to Japan ranked 16th and the other to Britain ranked 7th. GB coach, Bob Crutchley, said, “It was just a fantastic win for us tonight. I could not have asked for a better deal than this as we head towards the World League Semi-Finals in June. I think the turning point was who is going to score first after we took the 2-1 lead.”

Bob also pointed towards the increase in the work rate of the team. “In the last four to five weeks we had increased our work rate for the Azlan Shah Cup as we faced top rated teams. Tonight was just memorable and a great day for Great Britain.”

Australia had even pulled out their goalkeeper in the 3rd quarter when they lost a player to a green card. But these are days when the ace comes out in the opposing team’s pack. Australian coach Colin Batch was disappointed. “We created enough chances against Great Britain and had a couple of penalty corners. GB played a good game today, so did we. They plucked the goals early and we were not far behind in chasing those goals. I am a little disappointed but we will look into this and get back.”

Watching Great Britain win the title, the Indians must have given it a thought about how they imploded against Malaysia. It’s the start of a long season with the culmination of the World League and the World Cup happening at home. Under those pressures, India must find a way to be stronger and more resilient. The team doesn’t lack quality but building character and self-belief would ensure a podium.

Updated Date: May 07, 2017 11:28 AM

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