Sultan Azlan Shah Cup: India showed solidity and refined temperament in win against New Zealand

Classic efficiency has the inherent quality to lift a team and when combined with quick bursts of speed, it can demolish any opponent rendering the opposition reeling like a dazed prizefighter. India showed its competence and proficiency with a poacher-style goal from Mandeep Singh and then completed the demolition of New Zealand with two superbly taken penalty corners from Harmanpreet Singh for a stirring 3-0 victory which ensured that India remained unbeaten after two matches in the 26th Sultan Azlan Shah Cup hockey tournament. In the opener, India had played out a 2-2 draw against Great Britain. India now have four points from two games.

Harmanpreet Singh scored twice to guide India to a comfortable 3-0 win over New Zealand. Twitter: @HockeyIndia

Harmanpreet Singh scored twice to guide India to a comfortable 3-0 win over New Zealand. Twitter: @HockeyIndia

India coach Roelant Oltmans seemed to be in a better frame of mind after the match. “Of course, I am happy,” he said. “We were slightly sluggish in the 1st quarter but after that we held the midfield together and ensured that fluidity remained with us.” The Kiwi coach, Darren Smith, was simplistic in his appraisal. “After the third goal, the match was closed and India didn’t allow any space,” he explained.

After the below-par performance against Britain, a performance was needed from the forwards and they delivered to an extent. Mandeep Singh, error-prone in the first game, was alert against the Kiwis. And it was his goal that set the ball rolling. It was spectacular and that sums up why hockey fans look up to him more as a poacher than a forward who would create. He was in the perfect place, just ahead of the Kiwi goalkeeper Richard Joyce when a hit from Chinglensana came in screaming at chest-height. Mandeep bent himself but kept the stick up to swipe the ball into the Kiwi goal. The goal stunned the Kiwis and the delight on Mandeep’s face is good news for the matches ahead.

Substitutions were fast and furious as midfielders and defenders inter-changed positions faster than a dealer shuffling a pack of cards. From the second quarter onwards, India stifled the playing channels for New Zealand. As a result, the Kiwis suffered from a chronic lack of pace and creativity. In stepped the man, Pardeep Mor, who stood out for India, apart from the scorers. The Kalinga Lancers right half single-handedly dominated the 3rd and 4th quarter with stirring runs that kept the Kiwi defence busy. He was perfect on the line, sashaying past Kiwi midfielders to unleash inch-perfect crosses. Last year in the Asian Champions Trophy, he had troubled almost all the teams, especially Pakistan in the final where his runs drew the defence away making things slightly easier for the Indian forwards. Today, he created space for Mandeep, Akashdeep Singh and Talwinder Singh. In the 4th quarter itself, reverse hits went screaming over the Kiwi goal after Mor’s crosses had beaten the defence. Twice, Mandeep and Akashdeep couldn’t bring their sticks down in time; such was the intensity of the hits.

The Indian defence was rock solid and coach Smith pointed that out after the match. “It was difficult to get through,” he said. “We had a few chances but they crowded us out.” Surender Kumar was neat in his tackles and even Rupinder Pal Singh had a good game. Harmanpreet seems confident in the tackles and during the 3rd quarter, he not only picked out the ball from a Kiwi forward’s stick but then dribbled up to the midfield to deliver a through ball to Talwinder.

In the midfield, Chinglensana was the live-wire, picking up the ball and cutting through the middle and not onto the flanks as in the first match against Great Britain. The constant pressure on the Kiwis paid off in the 27th minute as India got its first penalty corner. Harmanpreet was on target, the flick all along the carpet beating Joyce in the goal. At 2-0, the Kiwis had their work cut out. With India not giving away possession, the New Zealand team were stuttering, not able to create any moves which could trouble India. At the break, India led 2-0.

New Zealand replaced Richard Joyce, the goalkeeper with Devon Manchester and it would be fair to say that his performance stopped a minimum of two goals for India.  In the 3rd quarter, Chinglensana gave to Harjeet who cut the ball past a defender for Mandeep but the Indian forward’s powerful hit went off Manchester’s stick. SV Sunil had a chance after Mor fed him a beautiful through ball but the Indian forward misjudged his run, the ball speeding off the goal-line.

By the time the 4th quarter started, the Kiwis were flagging. They were keeling like a torpedoed ship. India moved in and camped inside their half. The fourth penalty corner came India’s way in the 47th minute and Harmanpreet Singh flicked, the ball gaining height and crashing into the top corner of the net. Three goals down, there was no way back for the Kiwis. Drooping shoulders, beaten position to position, the Kiwis were hanging on desperate not to give away any more goals. India had the chances and three more penalty corners. But Harjeet Singh muffed his lines twice, unable to stop the ball. Manchester came to New Zealand’s rescue with three minutes left. Rupinder came on for his first penalty corner in the match and the powerful flick was brilliantly saved by the Kiwi goalkeeper.

In the end, PR Sreejesh was taken off and Akash Chikte had his two minutes on the ground. After the match, Oltmans said the forwards looked better and he was happy with their performance. “I was looking for a better cohesion between the midfield and the forwards and I am happy to see that in the match,” he said. Speaking about Harmanpreet taking the majority of penalty corners, Oltmans said it wasn’t pre-planned. “We didn’t plan anything out,” explained Oltmans. “He is young and in the Junior World Cup he didn’t have many chances. He is good and I do believe that in two years he would be the number one drag-flicker in the world.”

Arjun Halappa, former India captain, and presently assistant coach with the Indian team said the forwards were in better positions today. “Since the Asian Champions Trophy they haven’t really played and let’s not think about the Hockey India League as the place to check their performance level,” said Arjun. “The pressure of an international tournament is different and I think we will slowly get better.”  What would be comforting for the Indian management is the way India grew into the match and didn’t let the Kiwis come back. It shows solidity and a refinement of temperament. On Tuesday, all of it would be tested against the World and Azlan Shah champions Australia.

Updated Date: May 01, 2017 12:10 PM

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