Sultan Azlan Shah Cup 2017: India played their worst hockey in defeat against Malaysia

Form, that mysterious element, the Indian national hockey team surrounds itself with, deserted them when they required it the most. For a team ranked 6th in the world — not to mention are also Asian Games champions and Asian Champions Trophy winners — playing Malaysia was not a task that would have made them buckle under pressure. It was almost a replica of the 2016 Azlan Shah Cup match. In that game too, India needed a win against the hosts to go to the final and they won 6-1. On Friday, they looked a shadow of that team.  Malaysia’s 1-0 victory consigned India to play for the bronze medal; its rightful place was to play the world champions Australia and test themselves once again at the start of a season that would get tougher and tougher.

India's Harmanpreet Singh in actin against Malaysia. Image courtesy: Twitter/ @Hockey India

India's Harmanpreet Singh in actin against Malaysia. Image courtesy: Twitter/ @Hockey India

It couldn’t have been easier. Great Britain had won 3-2 against New Zealand. The equation was simple. India needed to win by at least two goals. There was the target. And the team had ample time to plan and prepare. Even the warning came early enough — Japan beating world champions Australia 3-2 in a thriller of a game. If ever there was a hockey game that would make Dennis Lehane pen a sports thriller, this was it. Japan hung around like a bat refusing to fly away even after Australia had taken a 2-0 lead. Any other team would have rolled over. But the Japanese kept at it; played man-to-man marking not giving Australia even a foot of space and in the latter stages scored twice and then stunned the No 2 ranked team with a winner in the 57th minute. Maybe, the world order is changing. Argentina is already the Olympic Champions for the first time in their history and other teams are playing catch up.

India, however, did the opposite. The match began under a slow drizzle. For India, it was their first match under lights. It was a beautiful setting and it required a game to match. On the contrary, India played their worst hockey. It seemed they were on the ground in spirit only. Within the first quarter, Malaysia, not willing to come up, fearing an Indian counter-attack started venturing out. India played as if they were running barefoot on a ground strewn with cacti. They missed passes, couldn’t trap and their positional play was akin to a third grader playing senior hockey. The first quarter went by without a shot on target. Malaysia’s tactics were understandable. They couldn’t afford a heavy defeat. Morale was low. If they could keep the Indians away and somehow steal a win, they could go out on a high. The early signs were not good for India. Mandeep Singh missed the ball twice; Akashdeep Singh couldn’t trap; SV Sunil’s dribble couldn’t get him past the first layer of defence. India were toothless. Malaysia sensed India’s fear. They decided to grab the opportunity.

Malaysian coach Stefan van Huizen, under fire after losing heavily to Australia, said, “The boys decided to do something right. After India failed with the penalty corners, we lost the fear factor and played more openly.” In the second quarter, not many put it past India to make a comeback and kill the Malaysians. Three penalty corners came in the 2nd quarter. Rupinder Pal Singh failed with all three. Malaysia’s goalkeeper, the veteran Subramiam Kumar, saved the first before India fired the next two off target. Not a single move had been made that could show promise of a return to normal playing methods. The forwards moved around in a daze; the midfield strayed on the flanks while the usually reliable defence decided to panic on Malaysian moves that crossed the half line. Indian coach Roelant Oltmans didn’t have many excuses to offer but surprisingly said that the defence played well and that ‘the Malaysians didn’t have a shot on target in the first half’. But this match was about qualifying for the final and not about defending. It was about the forwards getting their act together and scoring. At the very least, trying and not scoring could have been a consolation. Not having an attempt at goal but praising your defence was like shaking the hand of the chauffeur and not the guest!

Malaysia played their best hockey in the 3rd and 4th quarter. They were offensive and defended in numbers. Tactically, India had been outplayed. Not for a moment in the match, did the Indians attempt to rotate the ball barring a few minutes in the middle of the first quarter. After that India played as if they were desperate for the clock to run its course. Malaysia’s offensive move paid off in the 3rd and 4th quarter with two penalty corners each. Off the fourth, Shahril Saabah, flicked more with hope than intent. Pardeep Mor was caught off balance while Akash Chikte was stranded as he miscalculated the pace of the flick. Slow off the stick, it beat Chikte. Malaysia had the goal.

India now faced certain elimination from the final with only nine minutes left. In desperation, they made run-ins. But Akashdeep was a shadow of the player who could create moves like a champion ice-skater. Sunil needs to understand the basics of a forward; too many failures have piled up for him, while for Mandeep the spectre of inconsistency made that hat-trick against Japan feel like a flash in the pan. Yes, it was just one defeat but it was a match that needed to be won. And India came a poor second.

As for circle penetrations, Malaysia had 15 to India’s 13. And for India, a majority of them came in the 4th quarter. In terms of possession, both teams were equal with 50 percent each.  Oltmans said that he wasn’t disappointed by the result but by the non-performance. “We did not perform well, made too many unforced errors and did not take our chances in the first three quarters. We had to take risks in the last quarter and were not able to force goals.”

Consistency, the soul of successful teams, needs to be adopted. Athleticism, skills, intent, aggression can all be taught. Playing, winning and more like dragging yourself over the finish line is what India in this hour of trying to enter the top four of hockey playing nations should learn to strive for. Maybe, against New Zealand, a return to consistency might soothe the frayed nerves and hurt of not playing the Azlan Shah Cup final for the second year in a row.

Updated Date: May 06, 2017 16:22 PM

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