India beat South Africa 5-0 in the first match of their FIH Men’s Hockey World Cup at the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar, Odisha, on November 28. Coach Harendra Singh couldn’t have asked for a better result. On the other hand, he sure would hope some of his players get their act together going into matches against the bigger teams in the mix.
A shaky performance by the team’s premier penalty corner expert, and the fact that the field goals — at least a couple — were made possible more by the pedestrian South African defense than by India’s prolific hockey, is disconcerting to say the least.
India’s performance — disregard the scoreline — would give sleepless nights for the team management building up to the next match, against Belgium, the World No. 3 and one of the favourites to win the tournament.
Harmanpreet Singh, India’s go to penalty corner specialist in the absence of the injured (now fit, they say) Rupinder Pal Singh, had trouble right through the match. In fact, he stuttered even during warm-up — Harmanpreet managed to miss trapping and executing penalty corner trial hits, and he carried the erratic form into the match.
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Coach Harendra, during half time, was quick to point the less than perfect start to the tournament by his trump card, but could only watch in horror as his players, against the weak South Africans, dominated possession, won penalty corners, and then missed because they couldn’t execute variations or, worst of all, trap the ball cleanly. The missed multiple chances in the third quarter, Harmanpreet’s jerky flick movement only exacerbated by his trapper’s inefficiency. PC coach Chris Ciriello will have a lot of footage to go through, trying to understand where things went wrong.
For the record, two goals from Simranjeet Singh (43rd and 46th), and one each from Mandeep Singh (who scored the opener in the 10th minute), Akashdeep Singh (13th minute) and Lalit Upadhyay (44th) gave India the 5-0 victory.
Mandeep’s goal, on record, will count as a penalty corner conversion, but it came after the forward latched onto a deflected clearance by South Africa goalkeeper Rassie Pieterse, who blocked off a fairly easy Harmanpreet drag flick. The PC came as a result of India’s dominant, almost 80 percent, control of possession in the opening half.
The other goals — Akashdeep’s brilliant tap in from the right side of the goal mouth, or Upadhyay’s redirected goal from a Akashdeep hit into the D — are chances that are unlikely to materialise against a better organised and much more alert defense, one would imagine.
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After all, it is the World Cup, where the likes of Australia, Germany, the Netherlands, Argentina and Belgium await India in the latter stages. Belgium, who beat Canada 2-1 earlier in the day, would be the actual test of quality for the Indian side. That match is slotted for December 2, and would potentially be the Group C decider (group winners would go through directly to the quarters while the second and third placed teams will have play and win crossover matches to progress).
The match against the Belgians should give us an idea on the real quality of this youngish Indian team (World No. 5), which performed scrappily — no exaggeration here — against South Africa, the World No. 15.
The match began with India taking firm control of the tempo on the ball. However, Harendra’s ploy to win penalty corners for scoring soon backfired as Harmanpreet started firing blanks. At this point, the ideal case would have been for the coach to give chances to the two other penalty corner specialists in the team — Amit Rohidas and Varun Kumar. Rotating the responsibility might have helped ease the butterflies for Harmanpreet as well.
However, it is evident that Harendra has put all his penalty corner eggs in one basket, and Harmanpreet, despite his goalscoring credentials, is a “momentum” player, who scores in back-to-back flurries but could go missing if he loses that “touch”.
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Granted Rohidas and Varun are a notch below as far as drag flicks are concerned. But when you have three resources, and a big tournament at home to play, one would expect the management to be diligent in ensuring that Plan B, or Plan C if needed, are in place in case Plan Harmanpreet fails.
The victory over South Africa also reminded one, rather eerily, of the not-so distant record-breaking run of the Indian team at the Asian Games in Jakarta. After breaking a goal-scoring world record, India lost in the semis and had to settle for bronze, making the Olympic qualifying process a long, arduous and uncertain one (Asian Games gold would have given them direct entry into Tokyo Games in 2020).
In Jakarta, against poor sides, India scored goals by the dozen and froze when some semblance of quality came in front of them. As the euphoria of a “big” 5-0 victory settles down, one hope the Indian thinktank sort out the chinks that appeared against South Africa, or risk losing the plot much earlier this time around.
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