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Sultan Azlan Shah Cup 2018: Draw a fair result for India, England after underwhelming display with flashes of brilliance

Missing nine penalty corners may not ring alarm bells in the Indian hockey establishment, but in a match that saw momentary flashes of brilliance with large periods of underwhelming performance, sharing a point was just reward for both India and England.

Both came into their second match in the tournament having lost their opening games; India looking to improve structure after the 2-3 loss to Argentina while England looking for a vastly improved performance after the 1-4 whacking from Australia.

England’s intentions were clear as they sped in like little gnats, biting away at the Indian defence, tearing away the defensive fabric, and it was only Suraj Karkera who saved the situation from turning into an early rout by saving five to six home-bound shots. India’s defensive wall of Surender Kumar, Dipsan Lakra, Amit Rohidas, Nilam Xess and Mandeep Mor appeared to have jelly legs as they negotiated the speed and pace of Harry Martin, Sam Ward, Mark Gleghorne, Phil Roper and David Goodfield.

India celebrate in their clash against England. Image credit: Twitter/@TheHockeyIndia

India celebrate in their clash against England. Image credit: Twitter/@TheHockeyIndia

Slowly, India came into their own as they appeared to control the ball better, and kept it away from the marauding English forwards. The thrust was seen towards the end of the first quarter and it was then that India scored off a move created from the right flank.

It was Ramandeep Singh’s sudden burst that surprised the English defence, and by the time they recovered, Talwinder Singh had shot the ball towards the English goalkeeper Harry Gibson, who took the ball on the glove but couldn’t clear it as Shilanand Lakra, looking for a rebound or a cross, whacked it in.

It was the youngster’s first goal for the senior team and the way he overlaps and collects the ball surely points towards a longer innings, if not now but later. England were still rattling the Indian defence, but the end of the first quarter gave some respite and a chance to build from the midfield.

Both SK Uthappa and Sardar Singh appeared more assured. The Indian captain, playing a central role, didn’t hold the ball much and was quick on the draw to release it forward. Uthappa and Sumit played some moves and usually released the ball fast for Ramandeep and Talwinder, which kept the pressure going on the English defence.

That was probably the difference between the display against Argentina and the one against England. The midriff of the team, the core was much better giving space and relief. Simranjeet Singh was error prone, but some of his runs gave Gurjant and Ramandeep sharp chances which, looking at Ramandeep’s experience, should have yielded better results than just a soft flick or a wayward shot easily saved by an alert Gibson in the English goalmouth.

Then came the rash of penalty corners in the second quarter, the failings of which the team would devote an entire team session too. Not in a long time has the PC conversion been this bad. One can easily cover it by saying that Harmanpreet and Rupinder Pal are not with the team — which begs the question: Why not bring one of them along if the word ‘mentorship’ is being so casually thrown around?

It also leads us to ask questions, not about Varun Kumar or Rohidas, but the intensity and viability of the coaching staff around penalty corners. Chris Ciriello, the Australian penalty corner legend, was the name touted to be joining the Indian set-up, and it would be good if Hockey India (HI) can speed up the process with the Sports Authority of India (SAI), with time running out.

But these were not PCs spaced out because the forwards were creating them, but consecutive ones coming off flicks created by the infringements of the English defence. They came in like gifts in a discount store, but either the flicks were wayward or Gibson saved a few of them. The Indian coach defended Varun and Rohidas saying that some of the flicks were very good and that it is expected that the opposition goalkeeper would save a few of them. Yet missing eight and hoping to win a match is weaving a fantasy. England survived the onslaught.

It doesn’t leave much to the imagination as to what the result might have been if a side like Argentina had eight PCs and let the other side live to tell the tale. In the HWL Finals, where India had played Argentina, the South Americans earned one PC against India and scored off Peillat. That’s what a match-winner is all about. India need to look at this department and in a hurry.

India’s thrust somewhat suffered in the third quarter when they had two green cards and a yellow, all in the space of eight minutes. Lakra was sent off in the 30th minute and then Mor brought down Henry Weir. The worst infringement came from Simranjeet, who delayed in releasing the ball, and when robbed off it, used his stick to send the English player crashing. It meant that for almost nine minutes in the third quarter, India played with 10 men – criminal in the given circumstances. India still could have taken the lead when Uthappa and Gurjant moved in, but the final push slipped past the post. It was getting close and tense.

At the 2014 World Cup, India and England were battling away 1-1 when Simon Mantell fired in the match-winner in the 70th minute. The opening goal had been scored by Mark Gleghorne. And then in the HWL Finals in Bhubaneswar, Ward had scored the match-winner after both the teams were locked at 2-2. So as the fourth quarter started, getting a goal was a top priority for the Indians.

It would have required individual brilliance to create something spectacular. But both teams played slightly defensive, waiting for openings off counters only. India had their ninth PC and the best chance to close down the match but misfired off yet another chance. Despite that, Gurjant had a great chance, but was slow to pick the ball off the keeper’s pads.

It was getting too close, and India were closing down the midfield, as a result of which England rotated and kept the ball looking for openings. They didn't dare give away counters to India as they had seen that Ramandeep was punishing them with speed and pace. On one of the attacks, England was stick-checked just when they were about to take a shot at goal and the umpire pointed to a stroke.

The Indians, more out of hope than anything else, asked for a referral but the stroke stood and Mark Gleghorne flicked in past Krishan Pathak. It was 1-1. Eight minutes of good action remained for either of the teams to get a match-winner. India spread the field and kept the structure going, not giving away enforced errors. In the dying minutes, Simranjeet fired in a cross but there was nobody to pick up the ball and create an opportunity.

England had just one PC while India had nine. The circle entries go to England with 25 while India had 13, but shots on goal for India were 15 with England having 10 and that was where India could have closed the game and taken three points.

Bob Crutchley, the English coach, was happy with the result saying both teams have played some close games in the past and that with a team like India it was always expected to be close. “They have a new team different from the one that we have faced in the HWL and it’s always tough as they have a large group of talented players who can win a match on their own,” said Crutchley.

Sjoerd Marijne was unhappy with the general performance except that the defence was well-structured, but the rest he said were too rushed. “Even the ball possession was weak and then in the PC’s we were good and bad also. There were some PC’s well taken and should have been goals but this is a young bunch and will learn and come out better,” said Marijne. “I think the important thing is to keep learning and that’s what we are doing and hopefully we will put in a better performance in the next match.”

Optimism is still abound inside the ranks of a team that knows it has left integral parts of its core back home. There are talks of pedigree, faltering technique and also about the level of competition when teams like Argentina and Australia are in the fray. But it’s also time to stop sparring and understand the skill set required to deliver killer blows. Until then, claims to be a legitimate contender at the Azlan Shah would always sound hollow.

Updated Date: Mar 05, 2018 09:01 AM

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