Sultan Azlan Shah Cup 2018: Defensive woes, midfield worries continue to haunt India as Ireland douse medal hopes

With team sheets rejigged, younger legs introduced, close games against better opposition providing a mirage-like effect, it was up to Ireland, a team ranked four places below India at tenth to give us a lesson in realism. To say that Ireland's 3-2 victory was an aberration would be showing them disrespect. And giving India’s young legs the credibility they didn’t deserve.

Rankings kept away, the Indian team plays intense and a trunkful of matches through the year to understand the difference between a gritty and fluent win. Against hosts Malaysia, India’s 5-1 win had set up all the melodrama of a possible final and in the worst case, a bronze medal play-off. In that context, coming into a fifth match in the tournament, India should have understood the nuances of a win, flowing or scratchy was not the question; as with most things, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

File image of the Indian hockey team in action at the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup. Image courtesy: Twitter/@TheHockeyIndia

File image of the Indian hockey team in action at the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup. Image courtesy: Twitter/@TheHockeyIndia

India’s start didn’t give anybody a peek into what would follow. They played through the middle, cut the ball in, stretched the flanks and made the Irish defence probably imagine a four-quarter match of constant defending. India’s aerial deliveries started early as Shilanand Lakra, Sumit Kumar and Gurjant Singh trapped immaculately. Moving skilfully, the Indians were showing glimpses of settling in early and picking at the Irish defence. And when India got its first penalty corner in the 10th minute, things looked on track.

Varun Kumar fired it low and Ramandeep Singh, also the man who pushed, dived and deflected it in. It was a wonderful indirect penalty corner, which lifts the team that creates it and completely destroys the opposition defence. And when India got its second penalty corner, the flick sent wide off the post didn’t frustrate many. It was still the first quarter. And India looked like building.

But within minutes of the second quarter, things started unravelling. The play was ragged. India were passing to Irish sticks. The turn-over rate of India losing the ball increased. Play was lost in the midfield and Ireland sniffed at the Indian defence. They saw a jittery bunch of players trying to clear the ball without authority. Amit Rohidas has played the HWL Finals and he was expected to hold the ball. But he appeared constantly in a hurry. Varun Kumar and Dipsan Tirkey played the HWL alongside Rohidas and they started to crumble into the middle of the second quarter. Only Nilam Xess showed some spunk. In fact, he tried overlapping. India were fast losing structure.

You can understand that when the opposition is attacking and creating counters every 40 seconds of turn-overs. But to see India not bringing in fluency was jarring. Sjoerd Marijne later said, “India needs to be consistent.” But those are the very remarks after losses to England and Germany in the HWL, and that by the way was the senior team. So to which team are we looking for consistency?

In the 24th minute, the Indian defence grouped together on the left side, fending off an Irish attack. But the Irish intelligently swapped positions, saw the yawning gap with Shane Donoghue, left without a marker, and sent in a cross. Shane trapped neatly and flicked it into high into the right side of the net. Karkera had absolutely no chance of saving it. At 1-1, the seeds of doubt had been sown in the Indian minds. Yet, India earned their third PC and Amit Rohidas fired it in brilliantly, high into the net. India had the lead 2-1. Ireland also had their first PC and it required a brilliant effort from Karkera to keep it away.

The break came at the right time. With Ireland coming into the match and India sliding despite the lead, the coach would probably lift the team. Or change something structurally. But there was a tendency to let thing drift. Playing a team about which you don’t know much has its downside. But India probably felt they could just flick a switch and take care of Ireland.

The first signs of panic were in the individual play. It’s a very Indian thing, a kind of malaise that hits players in the lower leagues. And Shilanand Lakra, Sumit Kumar, Nilakanta Sharma fully indulged in it. They tried to dodge past Irish defenders, eventually losing the ball without realising that Ireland were being allowed to build attacks. Strikes down the flanks were reaching the Indian striking circle and in the 36th minute, the Irish opened up the Indian defence with surgical precision.

Shane, who was having a great match, was given enough space on the right flank and he hammered in a cross that had ‘optimism’ written all over it. The sleeping Indian defence let it travel, not a stick outstretched to stop. Sean Murray couldn’t believe it when he trapped the ball and skimmed it into goal. Ireland had the equaliser. Importantly, they had the confidence. India were on the ropes.

There was time to regroup, find a match-winner. All that the Indians had to do was close down the gaps and rotate the ball. Tactically, the best move would have been to pull Sardar from the midfield and play him free man at the back, give him the freedom to dictate terms and use that vision to create balls for Gurjant, Ramandeep, Lakra and Sumit Kumar. But the free man — Surender, Dipsan or Amit — whoever it was, kept firing it on the lines. It was time to use the middle to create forays, cut the ball onto the flanks and bring in players into the circle to try at least for penalty corners.

But India were in disarray. With Ireland understanding that India were not attacking with precision, they moved up, closing the gaps and India were on the defence. Whatever attacks happened, they didn’t have the sharpness. Gurjant tried to create some while Ramandeep, a player who has evolved in this tournament, was without any support. Twice, he plucked the ball and threw it into the circle. But there were no players. Sardar tried to dodge past a couple but there is a certain cohesion that a player looks for — and that was not there in this team. As Marijne said after the match against Malaysia, this team had hardly played together. More than any other side, Ireland used that to full advantage. For a team that is making its debut in the Azlan Shah, they were sizing up the opposition better than the Indians.

The killer stroke came in the 42nd minute off Ireland’s second PC in the match. Shane’s flick was deflected in by Lee Cole, and Ireland led 3-2 with a quarter remaining. That’s a lifetime in hockey. But India faltered. They ran all over the turf like headless chickens. Staring at defeat, they didn’t know where to look for inspiration. Losing is not something that teams don’t endure. But to lose a match where technical skills like trapping, passing, creating momentum, holding the ball is completely lost not only speaks volumes of a team’s powers at a comeback, it also in a way, if not fully, puts a question mark on the management.

Victories hide a lot of shortcomings but defeats open up like sore pores, especially against Ireland. India were playing their eight match and had only lost once before. The second loss would be forgotten in time. Such is the calendar that teams, fans, players all move on in time. But a match which could have given India a shot at playing Olympic champions Argentina again was lost. An opportunity for Karkera to defend Gonzalo Peillat’s flick was over. For the team to take on the challenge of Argentina and try and beat them was gone. It was experience we were after. And that’s what we lost.

By the end, with five minutes left, India were playing with a gambler’s passion. Pushing and hoping that a ball would drift and give them an opportunity. Not a single well-constructed move took place. Not a moment of keeping the ball and finding that space was undertaken. They drifted into the match and meandered their way out of it.

Sjoerd Marijne says he can’t blame the team. But he did say they failed to read the situation, and that the quality of the team on the day was low and the level flat. Marijne is also of the opinion that the players should have taken the lead. Yes, in a way, one cannot go to town on just a defeat against Ireland. “It happens all the time,” says Marijne. “I don’t know where to start. It was just one of those days.” India will again turn up against Ireland on Saturday in an effort to finish fifth. It’s not only the team but Marijne who will also have to raise his level. Talk of revolutions is all fine, let’s get the fifth place sorted out for starters.

Updated Date: Mar 09, 2018 22:44 PM

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