Hockey Asia Cup 2017: India complete continental domination, but have tougher tests to pass in future
India’s domination in the tournament was complete. But the distance between the World Cup and the Asia Cup is a fair one
In the end the 2-1 victory for India over Malaysia to clinch the Asia Cup for the third time in ten editions was more of a relief than anything else. The Indian captain Manpreet Singh with both fists clenched was screaming with joy and probably at some inner rage while the rest of the team-mates' faces were all lit up like thousand watt bulbs. With the tr-colour fluttering behind them, it was some sight.
In the 60-minute clash every nerve was tested, every muscle stretched and every sinew brought to breaking point. In an earlier Super 4 match, India had thrashed Malaysia 6-2. And when Ramandeep Singh scored in the 3rd minute, visions of a big score appeared. But, sometimes India play like sitting on a giant Ferris wheel. If they dominated certain bits of the quarters, rotating and keeping possession, there were moments when it appeared they would give it all up. The Indians hit some wonderful highs and a few lows too. And in there Malaysia was allowed to sneak in.
Trapping in the midfield and defence was perfect. But upfront when in the Malaysian striking circle, the forwards handled the ball like it was a viper out to get them. Chances came and were gone. Malaysia kept itself alive.
But they didn’t just defend. It was for a reason they had beaten India twice this year — at the Azlan Shah and then at the HWL in London — as they knew India's weaknesses. If they probed through the middle and used their speed on the flanks, chances would come for Malaysians. The Indian defence marshalled well by Sardar Singh would break at some point or give an opportunity for them to try and deflect or hit off the Indian goalkeeper’s pads.
But if the Malaysians lacked somewhere on Sunday, it was in the play of Saari Fitri, normally the lynchpin around which most of the attack revolves. A rampant Fitri on his day can be a pain for any midfield and defence. Combined with his defensive skills on top of the circle, he ensures Malaysia keep fighting and stay in a match. but on Sunday he was slightly off colour.
India took advantage of that and powered on. Chinglensana had an opportunity but his reverse shot was wide. It was hasty. And all it needed was turn in the striking circle. But shots on the run are always difficult.
Malaysia and India both had penalty corners; but couldn’t score. India was keeping possession. India lost the ball through SV Sunil and Akashdeep Singh and failed to build up speed in the midfield. In the 2nd quarter, errors were visible and Malaysia pounced on them.
Once again it was a stellar display from Sumit. Time and again, he tore through the Malaysian midfield setting up passes and when blocked by Malaysian sticks, turning around and giving it to the Indian defence. Harmanpreet was denied a penalty corner. And then Akashdeep saw his shot saved by Subramiam, the Malaysian goalkeeper. With just a minute left for the break, Sumit went on one of his many runs and reverse hit a shot perfectly for Lalit Upadhyay to deflect in for India’s second goal. India taking a 2-0 lead at the break was hugely demoralising for the Malaysians. And it did seem at that stage that India would run them over in the 3rd quarter.
India, in a way, played their best hockey in the 3rd quarter. It reminded of the times in the early seventies when play was not about dominating but also of dissecting the field with inch perfect passes. Sunil, Akashdeep, Ramandeep, Lalit, all of them tore apart the Malaysian defence. But like in the 70s, India dominated but didn’t score many.
It happened in Dhaka as well. Lalit had the best opportunity when the entire defence was on the left with the Malaysian goalkeeper stranded at the edge of the circle. The ball rose up and landed perfectly for Lalit who seeing an empty goalmouth did use power but overdid it. The ball rose and went sailing over the bar. A goal at that stage would have killed the Malaysians. But it gave them hope. Stephen, the Malaysian coach, knew that cutting back a goal would put pressure on India. Like what they did against South Korea before snatching a draw and bundling the Koreans out of the final.
After Lalit, Ramandeep in combination with Akashdeep raced in but couldn’t control the ball in front of the goalkeeper. India was throwing away chances while the clock ticked. It’s weird but the team that leads 2-0 in the 4th quarter comes under pressure. It looks for a third and at the same time is afraid of letting in one that would reduce the deficit.
Malaysia’s 2nd penalty corner was defended. But Saabah scored when the Indian defence didn’t close the space down and let a loose ball reach the Malaysian. At 1-2, India suddenly back-pedaled. Indian coach Sjoerd Marijne admitted after the match, that there was a moment of panic. It was a period of uncertainty. Malaysia powered ahead, using the flanks and also threw a few high balls into the Indian defence. One of the high balls was an easy picking for Varun who had a Malaysian forward behind him. But after trapping the ball perfectly, he let it hit his leg and Malaysia had a penalty corner; their third. India showed courage here throwing themselves at the ball to clear it. The team brought numbers back, each with his stick laid down. No way, were they giving away easy balls to Malaysia.
Stephen Van Huizen pulled off the Malaysian goalkeeper in a last ditch effort to force an equaliser. There were close calls but the defence kept the Malaysian forwards away. So much was the intensity at the end that the players took a few moments to realise that the match had ended.
A ten-year drought was over. A Cup last won in 2007 was now theirs. Manpreet Singh’s scream of joy with his team was visceral. A lot had happened in the last six months — the loss to Malaysia at the Azlan Shah and then the twin defeats in London to Canada and Malaysia again. The team also saw a change in coach. People were hopeful of a good performance but not many would have put their money on the team. “When we came here, we knew we had to win,” said Manpreet. “And we promised ourselves that we would do it whatever happens.” he added.
Marijne spoke about a break; and hinted towards more work. “There is a nucleus here,” he said. “And if we try and build that, we would do good in the future.” History also sat on the ramparts of this stadium and watched the final. A hundred metres away, some 32 years back, an Indian team had lost a very controversial Asia Cup final 2-3 against Pakistan. Somewhere in Hyderabad, Mohammed Naeem who scored that day would have smiled on Sunday and finally slept peacefully. Up there, Mohammed Shahid, who played that final and whose tales of artistry are still narrated in Dhaka, would appreciate what he saw.
India’s domination in the tournament was complete. But the distance between the World Cup and the Asia Cup is a fair one. However, the pattern of play points to something more significant, compelling. There is a definitive style when India has the ball which is eloquent and expressive. The road ahead can only get tougher. Manpreet and his boys need to practice that counter punch more effectively.
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