Ability, finesse and baggage go hand in hand with the Indian hockey team. Otherwise, how do you explain the domination of three quarters and then the sudden capitulation where the team gives away six penalty corners in four minutes! A match that was in India's pocket with three points for the taking inexplicably got handed over to the Koreans with 30 seconds to go. Jang Jong-hyun found the extreme corner, hockey-wise a gap not covered, with a powerful and clever flick to equalise and give the Koreans something to crow over. In the end, a fair decision as both teams split points. India and Korea now have four points from two matches. For India, the opening goal was scored in the 28th minute by Mandeep Singh.
With eight minutes and 25 seconds remaining in the match, the umpires suspended play as the pitch was water-logged by incessant rain. It was dark. The floodlights had been switched on. The break was good for Korea as they had lesser time than India to recover from the opening day fixtures where they beat Canada 6-3. India did their job well in the first two quarters where they made Korea run all over the place. It was a good tactic as Korea wouldn't have lasted the fourth quarter. But then the rains came in; a drizzle first and then the downpour. The 45-minute delay helped Korea.
Out they came and used the left flank. India helped as they usually do. Before the rain break, Sumit had been shown a yellow card. India played with ten. Korea pressed hard. It became a battle between Amit Rohidas and the Korean flickers. The third, fourth and fifth penalty corner was run down by Rohidas. The sixth hit Surender on the thigh. Korea asked for a stroke. The referral pointed for a seventh penalty corner. That was saved but dangerously. It led to the eighth. Thirty seconds remained. Jong-hyun realised there was no space in the middle. He went to the left of Sreejesh; extreme corner. Nobody was defending that angle. Korea had the equaliser. India's baggage; the last-minute choke, the cobwebs in the mind, all played their part.
Indian captain Manpreet Singh took the blame on himself. "I should have defended that angle. It was my mistake." He looked devastated. This was one of his better matches and it wouldn't have come to this had Nilakanta Sharma had converted a good chance at the restart of the match in the fourth quarter. Manpreet set up Nilakanta with a lovely through ball but the Indian midfielder couldn't get the ball past the Korean goalkeeper Kim Jae-hyeon.
India had a better day on the pitch than what they showed against Japan. They held the ball well, defended in numbers and used the midfield to create some good moves. Vivek and Manpreet were the vital cogs in the middle, rotating the ball well. In defence, Amit Rohidas and Surender Kumar had a good match. In fact, Surender saved a ball looping into the goal by flicking it away on the line. In the first quarter, Vivek, with a deft move, set up Simranjeet but the forward couldn't trap. India's first penalty corner in the first quarter wasn't stopped cleanly.
In the second quarter, India had a second penalty corner but Rohidas' flick was saved by the Korean goalkeeper. It was largely a midfield battle in the second quarter. Korea held for periods but couldn't penetrate much. Surender and Rohidas were clean in their tackles. In the last five minutes of the second quarter, Korea bizarrely picked up three green cards. Suddenly they were down to eight on the pitch. India sensed the opportunity and pressed hard. The move was set up by Amit Rohidas and then Manpreet sent the ball through to Nilakanta whose hard hit into the Korean striking circle was deflected in by Mandeep Singh. India led 1-0 in the 28th minute.
The lead could have been extended when Birendra Lakra, moving up deftly, went past three Korean defenders before serving the ball to Mandeep who couldn't trap. India's finishing in the circle was creating problems. Korea had their second penalty corner with fifty seconds remaining on the clock in the third quarter. This time Krishan Pathak took the flick on the pads.
The fourth quarter started at a frenetic pace. Manpreet's long pass from mid-pitch wasn't trapped by Gursahibjit. Korea's Cheon missed off a counter-attack. By then the clouds had come in with floodlights being switched on.
This was the 18th drawn match between both the sides in 81 matches. Matches between both these sides have been extremely close. In the last 8 matches, five have been drawn with India twice winning in shoot-outs. In the last two matches played at the Asian Champions Trophy and the Asian Games, however, India has won by margins of 4-1 and 5-3 respectively.
Indian High-Performance Director and coach at the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup, David John, was highly critical saying, "Ill-discipline cost us as it sometimes does in India." He also did say that the team fought hard in the penalty corners. "But it should have been a three-point game as we had enough opportunities in the first three quarters."
Manpreet agreed with John's assessment. "Yes, we had the chances and should have closed the match. And we gave them too many penalty corners." But the captain was happy that the performance was better than the one against Japan, though that was a 2-0 victory for India. "The players put in enough energy and we didn't give them too many chances. Yes, the rain helped them as they recovered better."
With a rest day on Monday, Manpreet said the team will utilise the time to understand the deficiencies and work towards a better structure in the match against hosts Malaysia.
In the last six matches against Malaysia, India have lost only one but that was a highly crucial semi-final encounter in the Asian Games which after a 2-2 draw went to a shoot-out and Malaysia won. After that, the two teams played a goalless draw in the Asian Champions Trophy. In the 2018 Sultan Azlan Shah Cup, India had beaten Malaysia 5-1.
Manpreet denied any psychological barriers the team might have after their Asian Games semi-final loss to Malaysia. "That is over, and we have moved forward," he said. David chirped in saying, "We beat them 5-1 here last year." A repeat will do well.