By the time the night ends and dawn breaks over Ipoh, the Indian hockey team would have understood where it all went wrong against South Korea in the Sultan Azlan Shah final. Indian management has been quite obsessed with ‘young legs’, but it ironically was not the ‘ageing’ but ‘mature’ legs of the South Koreans who outsmarted India. In all probabilities, it was India's final to lose, but the South Koreans were able to claim victory through a 4-2 shootout victory.. But give the devil it’s due; the Korean coach Shin Seok Kyo, as wily as they come, knew that the deeper his team went into the match with the scores level, India's young flock would find it hard to stay focused.
That moment of vulnerability came in the 47th minute. Amit Rohidas had the ball with an acre of space on his right. But instead of flicking, hitting or just running wide and scooping it away, he went inside with Cho Sukhoon and Kim JungHoo cutting down space. Cho plucked the ball away and it rolled away for JungHoo who was on it in a flash. Desperate to retrieve the situation, Rohidas wrapped the stick around JungHoo’s legs. It was a stroke. India still went for a referral and lost. Jang Jonghyun, usually doesn’t miss with strokes. And his flick to the right of Krishan Pathak did the damage. With the scores level at 1-1, Korea took the battle to the Indian half. Yet, India created chances and would have closed the game with their 5th PC towards the end. But the flick was too wayward. Korea had studied the corners and ran well, forcing Varun to either flick straight or ensuring he went wide. It was a great example of how experience can win you a big final.
It was anybody’s game in the shoot-out. Kim Jaehyeon saved twice; his fantastic glove work to keep out Sumit Kumar’s goal-bound reverse was extra-ordinary – outstretched right glove barely touching the ball but enough to send it into the side netting. Luck does play a role too. And when Jung Manjae was stopped by Pathak, umpire Steve Rogers ordered a retake. Pathak wanted a referral saying Manjae prevented him from effecting a save. The video replay clearly showed that Manjae stepped on Pathak’s stick not allowing him to clear the ball. But in an extra-ordinary decision, the video umpire ordered a retake. Manjae scored and Korea were ahead 3-2. After Sumit Kumar’s failure came at the right juncture for the Korean captain, a goal would give Korea the title. Lee Namyong pulled off a fine goal. He went in, lifted the ball up and tipped it over the onrushing Pathak. The ball looped and went into the goal. It was extra-ordinary skill, a goal, that would be constantly played over videos to be seen by coaches and a lesson for juniors in understanding what skills means.
A distraught Surinder Kumar, man-of-the-tournament, said, he would gladly exchange his medal for a team title. “It should never have reached the shoot-out stage. We should have killed the match in the first half itself.” The same sentiment resonated from Coach David John and Manager Chris Ciriello.
Korea didn’t have age on their side; neither were they eager to out-run opponents who could kill them on the break and on the flanks. Predictably, they slowed the pace down. But very intelligently, on virtually every free hit, they took time and rotated. India never got into a rhythm. Slowly, the trap that Korea laid was also spun by India by not taking those opportunities in the first two quarters. Three penalty corners went up in smoke. And at least six good chances, out of which three were goal-bound. In the first two quarters, India had possession of 59 and 69 percent, which should have been enough to close out a match. In fact, after the first goal in the 9th minute, it looked like a few would follow subsequently.
The first goal was created out of sheer pace and control – Mandeep Singh to Sumit Kumar and back to Mandeep who gave it to Simranjeet whose deflection went into goal through the legs of the Korean goalkeeper. In the second quarter, it was all Simranjeet. The Koreans had no clue how to handle him. But the support for the Indian forward wasn’t good enough. Time and again, he went past 3-4 Korean players, but the final finish wasn’t good enough. Sumit Kumar, Shilanand Lakra, Mandeep, Vivek should have picked up the rebounds and closed the game down.
The surprising bit was the possession and rotation from India. By not taking few risks, they did play into Korea’s hands who were happy playing from the back. It gave them the time to settle down and ensured that India’s 1-0 score-line went all the way to the 4th quarter.
By the time the 3rd quarter started, India were feeling the pressure and Korea were holding the ball, slowly working themselves into the match. With 55 seconds to go in the 3rd Quarter, India had their 4th PC and they should have made it count. It was an indirect attempt with Rohidas selling a dummy and Varun firing it in. But he hit Vivek instead.
It was a cat and a mouse game in the 4th quarter. Korea stepped up the pace. They had kept themselves preserved. India faltered. Korea forced an error and the game was level.
A look at the last ten matches between these two sides would have given an indication where the match was headed. Six had been draws, out of which two India had won in the shoot-out. Two were won with a score-line of 1-0 and 2-1. And only two matches were won with big margins – the 5-3 win at the 2018 Asian Games and the 4-1 at the 2018 Asian Champions Trophy.
Chris Ciriello said the team didn’t take their chances. “We couldn’t shift the ball yet had more circle entries. We need to take our opportunities. We need to work hard and realise the mistakes.” In terms of the experience gained, Chris believes it will help in the future. “We now play Australia in a five-Test series. We will get there, but just need a bit more experience.”
David John, India’s High-Performance Director and the coach here admits Korea were the smarter team. “We had more play and more opportunities. But Korea managed their area very well and they are smart and experienced.”
After being asked whether Sreejesh would have been a better bet in the shoot-out, David pointed to the Champions Trophy and the Asian Games shoot-out which had Sreejesh and India still lost. “Krishan Pathak was good in the tournament and there is very little to choose between the two. It’s his development too.”
David was upset about India's failure to win in finals which is becoming a habit. “We have a lot of younger players and I don’t like to finish second. The team doesn’t like being second. I hope tonight is a big learning experience for the team.”
It would take some courage from the team to go over the match stats. India had 34 circle entries compared to Korea’s 13. India had 11 shots on goal to Korea’s 3. Yet, the team was hustled into the shoot-out with a 1-1 regulation time score-line. Look closer and defeats too would have a silver lining. Numbers cannot always define the win-loss ratio of a team that so strongly relies on youth. Long after this Saturday night recedes, calmness restored, the team would look at the positives, not as individuals but as a collective unit out to create a future for themselves as a group.
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Updated Date: Mar 31, 2019 11:35:43 IST