Bounced around in three matches with two losses, a lone draw and a few dominant quarters as consolation, India faced a grim reality " beat hosts Malaysia or be considered not good enough. Even for a team that is a mixed bag of youth and experience, a win was badly needed and it not only came but was delivered in style as the Indians paced the match well and ravaged Malaysia 5-1. The win, besides earning India their first full points in the event, would have left the players happy and satisfied with the quality of play they dished out.
File image of Indian hockey players in action at the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup. Image Courtesy: Official Facebook page of Hockey India
For India, the scorers were Shilanand Lakra (10th), Gurjant Singh (42nd, 57th), Sumit Kumar (28th) and Ramandeep Singh (51st). Malaysia came into the match briefly in the 33rd minute when Faizal Saari fired in a high flick. But India controlled the game in the third and fourth quarters, held possession, stretched the play and most importantly, shot in the chances they got. Gurjant Singh was the muscular version of a forward, constantly looking for space and opportunities; his second and India's fifth goal was hockey's version of a slam-dunk as he picked up a PC rebound and shot it in.
India desperately wanted to keep the errors low. They still came in the first quarter. Too many passes went haywire, most of them landing on Malaysian sticks and counters started probing the Indian defence. It was a good game for Surender Kumar, Dipsan Tirkey and Varun. They played tough but still couldn't stay from a green card. In the 16th minute, Dispan was shown the green card and it looked as if the parade was to begin. But lessons were learnt quickly enough. India stayed away from trouble, in fact, gave that extra space to Malaysia but didn't worry the umpires about bringing out any more warnings. On the contrary, Malaysia had two green cards.
Without Uthappa, out with a hamstring pull, it would have worried the coach about the penetration in the midfield. He didn't need to. After a slow start by Sardar and Simranjeet Singh, they pulled out their wares and in the last two quarters, it was the style of Sardar and the youthful exuberance of Simranjeet as he rushed into the Malaysian half, shielding the ball and also flicked in a few lovely through balls.
It was also Ramandeep Singh's best performance in the tournament. Of late and for quite some time now, he has been the forward with the skills, albeit with an over-reliance on individual play. It's still the old Ramandeep but on Wednesday, he moved the ball like a puck on ice and also created the moves for the young Shilanand Lakra and Sumit Kumar. Like a terrier let loose, Ramandeep hovered around the striking circle, the ball glued to his stick, the release inch-perfect but the damage to the Malaysian defence was total. They were surprised and also caught unawares by Ramandeep's slick passes.
If India held out for long periods of time, it was Suraj Karkera who played four quarters, not substituted by the coach after the second quarter. Karkera was quick, agile and read the penalty corners well. Even the reverse hits from the corners and the straight hard hits were saved by him. He was perfect in coming out and understanding the situation. Sjoerd Marijne simply said when asked why he didn't bring on the second goalkeeper as has been the norm,"Karkera was too good and his confidence was sky high so I let him continue."
Sumit was fast, pacy and unlike in the previous matches, didn't overplay. His runs down the flank and also the sprint through the middle unsettled the Malaysians. With Sumit Kumar and Lakra, he had a few good one-to-one sessions and the fourth goal was all but created by the Sonepat player; a hard hit into the striking circle had the Malaysians sleeping while Ramandeep just deflected it high into the net.
India's first goal did come against the run of play. In the few minutes before that, Malaysia had a few sharp chances. But when Gurjant Singh found space on the left flank, he moved in and with a sharp turn gave the ball to Shilanand Lakra who tapped in. The lead was a power boost to the Indians. The hosts still came after the equaliser. Gurjant, once again, had the space to create another move but he overplayed. Individual skills look good but they give an equal opportunity to the opposition to close down the gaps. India were playing well but that edge of controlling the pace wasn't there. Instead of holding the ball, India were giving it away.
The equaliser finally came through Malaysia's first penalty corner. Faizal Saari was quick to see the gap but it was his powerful rising flick that did the trick. For Karkera, it was a difficult save as the ball tore into the right corner. At 1-1, it was match on. A goal on either side could have tilted the scales. The rains were still coming down. In such weather, the sticks become slippery. No wonder that Sumit wore a single glove to hold his stick firmly.
The lead came India's way in the 42nd minute off their second PC. Varun's flick was good as Rahman Hairi padded it away. Sumit took the rebound and his reverse hit was again saved by Hairi. This time the rebound fell Ramandeep's way and he flicked high towards goal. Gurjant was there to tap it in for his first goal. With the lead intact, some control came into India's play.
In the fourth quarter, Malaysia attacked, sensing another equaliser could make the match tense and enable them to draw mistakes from the Indians. They had a second PC but a brilliant run by Sumit saved the flick. Sardar, by now, was coming into his own. The Indian captain, so used to controlling the pace of the game over the years, went past three Malaysians in the 48th minute, and while falling, gave the ball to Ramandeep whose cross was tapped in by Sumit Kumar. India led 3-1. With no option left but to come out, India suddenly had the space to move. They used the flanks. Errors were kept to the minimum. Malaysia had less of the ball as India didn't give free turn-overs. After wasting a third PC, India managed to hold the ball off a Malaysian error and Sumit shot it straight into the striking circle. Malaysia had dozed off but an alert Ramandeep beautifully deflected the speeding ball high into the net. At 4-1, India had killed the game.
The fourth PC sealed the match. Amit Rohidas, who also had a good match, playing with extraordinary control, flicked hard and low but Hairi was out early to take it on the pads. The rebound fell for Gurjant who slammed the ball back into the goal. With India leading 5-1, the story for Malaysia would have been to get a few goals back. But India tightened up and even though they conceded three PCs in the last two minutes, they held forth with Karkera to run out 5-1 victors.
With four points and a match against Ireland, India would fancy their chances to go to seven points. And if England beat Malaysia and Australia take care of Argentina, the tables will again resemble a chaotic mess. But India can still squeeze through for a 3rd/4th playoff. But that is for another day after a rest on Thursday.
Marijne was extremely excited with the win. "I have been saying every day that we are progressing but all that would come to nothing if there is no win," he said. "I am happy that we didn't get many cards and we played well in the later part of the match to snatch a good win against Malaysia."
The Indian coach was happy with the defensive work and also excited that Karkera had a good match. Asked if continuing with Karkera was a pointer to settling the players down, Marijne didn't fall for the bait and said, "The team for the Commonwealth Games is still way off."
Going all out against a fast-breaking opponent is always a high-risk strategy but there are no templates for wins in international hockey. In the last ten matches against Malaysia, India has won eight. Marijne, especially, since he became coach has won all " 6-2, 2-1 and now 5-1. Given the attacking propensity of India, maybe, Marijne and his boys can still salvage something good out of this tournament.