Sultan Azlan Shah Cup 2018: India restrict the flash, cut out errors to rout Ireland, finish respectable fifth

Scrambling to deal with what was a mini crisis; India restricted the flash, kept the play simple, and was ambitious without the errors to finally ease through the tournament with a 4-1 victory over Ireland. India finished fifth with the Irish ending up last in what was their debut Sultan Azlan Shah Cup. On Friday, there were many hung heads; the defeat to Ireland had played on their minds, especially for a team in which 10 players had already done their bit for the senior team. In fact, the quality was there, the intensity was missing.

Action between India and Ireland in the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup. Twitter/ @TheHockeyIndia

Action between India and Ireland in the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup. Twitter/ @TheHockeyIndia

Indian coach Sjoerd Marijne referred to the intensity after the match. “I just told them to keep the errors away and press hard,” said the coach. “There was some soft play in the first quarter but later they settled down and took up the challenge.”

For India, the scorers were Varun Kumar (5th and 22nd minutes), Shilanand Lakra (32nd minute) and Gurjant Singh (37th minute). Ireland pulled one back late in the fourth quarter when Julian Dale scored in the 48th minute.

It couldn’t have been a better start for a team that needed to make a comeback. Momentum was important because Ireland had the confidence and India the talent. So when Varun fired in the penalty corner off India’s second attempt in the fifth minute, it seemed the roller coaster ride would eventually end. It was good to see Varun get the goal. From India’s 26th penalty corner of the tournament, the Jalandhar lad had finally got on the scoresheet. Marijne's smile showed his relief.

“There have been some good flicks in the earlier matches but even the other team’s defences have held up. I am glad he (Varun) got the goals,” Marijne said.

But surprisingly, the errors came back to haunt the Indian team. They had the possession, but the forwards, especially Lakra and Sumit Kumar, tended to showcase their solo skills more than trying to put together a team effort. In the first quarter, India led 1-0 and they came back with some more intensity in the second quarter. With India’s possession of 69 percent, Ireland hardly saw the ball. India played up and pressed, ensuring that the turn-overs didn’t happen.

With the Irish getting very little of the ball, control remained with India. A lovely move from the right flank saw Nilam Xess with a cross. Ireland didn’t follow up and Lakra standing right next to goalkeeper Jamie Carr flashed at it. The shot deflected off the goalkeeper and into the net as India got their second goal. Xess’s runs are wonderful and with a bit more muscle this boy from Odisha’s Bargarh district can make the defender-right half’s position his own. At the break, India led 2-0 with promises of more goals to come.

Two minutes into the third quarter, India had their third penalty corner after Sumit dribbling his way in from the flank. After asking for a referral, India had the penalty corner. Varun was spot on as his flick entered the Irish goal. It was Varun’s second goal of the match. With nothing to show before, the Indian full back now had two goals. Meanwhile, India showing more intent in the Irish striking circle, had Ramandeep Singh with a through from Simranjeet Singh who had a good game. Ramandeep, sprinting into the circle tried to create space but the Irish defence didn’t let him take a snap shot.

India had a fourth penalty corner but Mark Ingram who had come in place of Carr saved the flick. Leading 3-0 and showing more enterprise, India was creating sharp chances. Suddenly when Ireland thought they had cleared a ball, Simranjeet picked it up and gave it to Talwinder Singh, who in his customary style, dribbled in from the circle and squared to Gurjant whose powerful run ensured the tap beat the advancing goalkeeper. India were 4-0 up. Ireland were looking for space, but not finding it, and were overly defensive. By the end of the third quarter, Simranjeet had created two more opportunities but Ingram was coming to Ireland's rescue.

With the balls hardly being given to Ireland, India had the control of the game. Then Talwinder got a green card. It reduced India down to 10 men, and they conceded space for the first time in the match. Ireland used that opportunity and got their first goal of the match. It was Shane O’Donoghue’s cross and Dale was in the right spot to bang it in. Krishan Pathak who had replaced Suraj Karkera didn’t have the time to react.

India had two more penalty corners but both were wasted. Off one, the umpire had pointed to a stroke but Ireland went and successfully appealed to the video umpire. Towards the end, with energies slacking, Ireland earned their only penalty corner of the match, but the push was too slow. By the last minute, Ireland couldn't penetrate any further as India saw off the late challenge. It was a tough match in the circumstances, and the defeat on Friday ensured that India rose to the challenge.

For the fifth time, in their 21 appearances at the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup, India had finished in fifth spot. Their worst finish has been seventh in 2004. Marijne was happy about the team’s response.

“We were much better and kept the passes low. With the trapping better, Ireland couldn’t intercept and that was the crucial aspect about the play,” he said. However, the India coach said he did compliment the team about Saturday's performance. “I really cannot take away (sic) what happened in the first match against Ireland. That was a big disappointment and we as a team were just not ourselves.”

On being asked what he told the team after going back to the hotel after the 2-3 defeat on Friday, Marijne said, “I showed them the clips from the match and explained the mistakes. We didn’t reach the levels expected and the staff helped them to cope with it.”

India captain Sardar Singh, disappointed with the fifth spot, said, “A lot of credit goes to the coach for making us understand where the team went wrong in the first match against Ireland. The boys are young and they will learn. It is hugely disappointing to lose like that. But a lot of credit to the team for coming back and winning the play-off.”

Amidst all the conjecture of what the core team will be for the major tournaments – Commonwealth Games, Champions Trophy, Asian Games and World Cup – it does not really require a degree in psychology to understand where Marijne will be focusing. The Sultan Azlan Shah Cup team has had the benefit of playing world champions Australia and Olympic gold medallists Argentina, and in the long run, Indian hockey would hope to benefit from the exposure and experimentation and reap the benefits.

Updated Date: Mar 10, 2018 21:29 PM

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