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Women's Hockey World Cup 2018: India bank on bolstered midfield, sharp forwards to see off Ireland in quarters

Inconsistency may have been a recurring theme in Indian women’s hockey but over the last four matches, the team has displayed amazing grit and determination to create a new chapter for themselves; a win over Ireland in the quarter-finals would be a gigantic step in not only moving up the world rankings but also bringing back self-belief. Two draws and a defeat in the Pool stages pointed towards a performance teetering between average and good. But in the victory over Italy in the Cross-Over game, India showed that quality that always becomes the difference between winning and losing – resolve and perseverance. In the past, too often, the women have shown skill but buckled when put under pressure. Usually after a goal down, India have settled for a set pattern of individual histrionics.

This team led by Rani Rampal is different. Not because they are a step away from a semi-final spot or that they are playing a quarter-final which even Hockey India didn’t think was possible, if reports are to be believed from within the organisation. With every passing match, they have played as a team. If there is criticism, it has come only when gifted players like Rani, Vandana, Lilima, Udita have been seen what many perceive as ‘holding’ the ball that extra bit. It’s fair criticism in a world where hockey has become first touch and in some cases, coaches do play a pattern where a ball can reach the opponent goal-mouth in six touches.

 Womens Hockey World Cup 2018: India bank on bolstered midfield, sharp forwards to see off Ireland in quarters

India beat Italy 3-0 in the cross-over match to reach quarter-final. Image courtesy: Official FB page of Hockey India

Indian coach Sjoerd Marijne put it succinctly: “Every player has different skills and for some it’s better to pass and for some it’s better to run in certain areas. We have to use the positive qualities in the team and for everybody this is different and that’s also better. You don’t want a team with all the same players, we need diversity.”

Former Indian goalkeeper and twice Olympian at the 2000 and 2004 Games, Devesh Chauhan hopes individualistic play is lessened. “The forward line is becoming individual because the match that I watched against Ireland, many a times the players were trying to do it themselves (individual) and had they given a pass, there would have been a goal. So, they should avoid playing individually and play as a team. Forward line is quite strong, Rani is there and they should win.”

But to be fair, it was also Rani who delivered when PCs were misfired through flicks and due to some good defending from the opposition to come up with a lovely strike for that all-important equaliser against the USA. No strike from Rani would have meant going home early. It’s also the strength and skill of Lilima Minz that has powered the midfield on the left flank; the skills of Vandana finally giving her a goal from that brilliant deflection or the vivaciousness of Neha Goyal who has two goals in the tournament, both opportunistic and wily. In fact, Neha’s positioning in the striking circle has been outstanding. She has missed a few too but latched onto chances which could have resulted in a PC or the umpire could have given a free hit to the opposition. Her play before the opposition striking circle has been taut and unyielding.

Players are coming of age and the QF against Ireland promises much. Don’t give too much importance to the Irish World Ranking of 16th. They are an enthusiastic bunch who seems blissfully happy to be on the pitch and play a spot of hockey. Anna O’Flanagan plays more than just hockey. She is the leader on the pitch, cutting through the midfield, creating those wonderful geometric arcs on the flanks and most importantly from the Indian point of view, running down our PC drills. In the 7 PCs that India had against Ireland, she ran down, deflected, harassed and did everything to render Gurjit a nervous wreck. Hopefully, in all these days, the coach and support staff have studied and found the answers to Anna. As an attacking forward, she is wonderful to watch and Grace Ekka who also studies the art of the moving stick, flashy feet would have done her bout of video watching to figure out the means to neutralise Anna. Ekka, does come across as taking her time to tackle, release but in those calm hands, unruffled demeanour lies deep an experience of 168 international matches and what better way than against the Irish to once again frustrate and dishearten the Irish.

Nicola Evans, Megan Frazer, Duke Deirdre will also try and influence the match. Ireland’s trump card against the Indian’s aggressive forward line and the PCs is their hugely talented 22-year-old goalkeeper Ayeisha McFerran. Gifted with an astounding presence of mind in the circle, she has the flexibility and knows the angles even when caught on the blind side. India will have to come up with something special to be able to beat her. If there is any weakness in her keeping, it’s only when the rebound falls on her wrong side. And that is when players like Lalremsiami, Udita and Neha Goyal could pounce to finish off the move.

Devesh Chauhan believes even in the lost match against Ireland, India dominated. “See, India did not lose,” he explains. “If you look at the match the score was 1-0, if you see the circle penetration, India had 15 and Ireland had 5. India had 7 PCs, and Ireland had 2-3. They scored one in the PC and India didn’t get any and one should praise the Ireland goalkeeper who got them the win. But, if you look at the match overall, India was dominating. According to me, India should win the match.”

India would be relying again on the skills of Namita Toppo, Lilima Minz and Monika to propel the midfield. Till now, they have been unassuming even when holding the reins of the mid zone. The midfield needs a little bit of bolstering and a change in pace could give India an advantage in the 1st Q. Ireland who were watching the match when India beat Italy 3-0 would look out for the tiny Indian forward Lalremsiami. The Mizoram girl’s pace has been killing and combined with the dribble, she is very explosive.

Marijne says the QF is another match. “It’s a do-or-die match. We played them twice last year and hopefully now it’s our turn. We need to convert the chances.”

Looking back at the match with Italy, Marijne believes the team can be better than that. In fact, after the match, he had said that he was happy with the result but not with the performance. “We were sometimes sloppy,” he says. “We need to be more proactive. But I am also happy that they turned it around in the 2nd half.”

In the last five matches, India has lost four and drawn one. One of the matches was also lost in a shoot-out. And the last time we beat them 2-1 and 3-1 was in a Test series in 2014.

Fortified at the back, bolstered in the midfield, and sharp upfront, India stand at the very edge of creating history. They would be tested but it is the team’s resolve that should carry them through.

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Updated Date: Aug 02, 2018 17:43:03 IST