It eventually wouldn’t have mattered, but when the Indian men took the field at the Sultan Azlan Shah stadium in Ipoh, Malaysia against Ireland, the equation facing them was simple. Win, against the team that is ranked 10th in the world, the team that had lost all its previous matches in the tournament, and have the chance to put real pressure on both Malaysia and England in the next game. With England thrashing Malaysia 7-2 in the final group match, India would not have finished in the top two - but a win against Ireland would have at least kept them in medal contention.
As it turned out, Ireland stunned the men in blue to record a deserving 3-2 win and ensured the two teams will replay this match on Saturday to see who finishes last in the tournament. Irrespective of the strength of the Indian squad sent to the tournament, that is not a scenario that should please the think-tank.
As has been repeatedly mentioned in these pages, this Indian team was experimental in nature - the idea was to test the bench strength ahead of a crucial 2018. The Sultan Azlan Shah Cup is, by some distance, the least important tournament for India in a packed year.
Having said all that, the team that India fielded on Friday - especially fresh from a 5-1 thrashing of Malaysia - should not have thrown away leads twice to lose against a gritty Irish team.
Coming into this match, there was a good case to be made for the fact that India played poor hockey for just one quarter in this tournament - the third quarter against Australia where they conceded three goals, playing with 10 men for the most part. If indiscipline was the biggest issue for the team in the first four matches of the tournament, it made way for lack of focus against Ireland.
The first time Ireland got on scoresheet after Ramandeep Singh had given India the early lead, it was from a free hit down India’s left flank. The ball was played out harmlessly before a couple of quick cross-field passes caught the Indian defence napping - so much so that the most dangerous Ireland striker from open play, Shane O’Donoghue, was left unmarked with all the time in the world to unleash a powerful shot at Suraj Karkera in goal. A great finish from an avoidable scenario, the coach would have told himself.
It didn’t take long for India to regain the lead, and going 2-1 up at half time, Coach Sjoerd Marijne would have expected his troops to buck up and solidify the lead in the second half. The warning signs were there. Ireland were growing into the game, the Indian defence looked shaky, the forwards were not clicking with too many long balls being attempted instead of passing through the midfield - the give-and-go style that the Dutch coach wants his team to play.
But instead, the third quarter saw India play the worst hockey of their tournament so far. While conceding three to Australia in the space of 15 minutes can be excused for an inexperienced team, conceding two to Ireland in that third quarter would be a much tougher pill to swallow.
Avoidable second goal
If the first goal came about when the defence was caught napping, the second goal happened when the Indian back-line took a long afternoon siesta. It was the simplest of cross from the right flank, any sting in it had been taken out by a deflection as it came into the box. First, Sumit saw the harmless cross past him as his stick control evaded him. Not expecting the ball to get past Sumit, Karkera was not ready to deal with it either and allowed it to trickle past him. And Sean Murray was more than glad to get his belated Christmas present - tapping it in from a yard away.
Credit where credit is due, the third goal was a well-worked penalty corner routine from the men in green. And once they had taken the lead, Ireland simply had to defend their posts with grit, which they more than managed to do. India’s attacking play in the final quarter lacked cohesion and it didn’t look like they had two goals left in them. The legs were tired, despite coming into the game with a day’s rest, the passes didn’t stick, and the circle penetrations were more in desperation than with any clear strategy.
Caveats about the lack of experience aside, the performance against Ireland was not befitting that of a team of India’s stature. There are no easy wins in a tournament like this, but had India played anywhere close to their capabilities, Sardar Singh and Co would have been in contention for the bronze medal on Saturday and not a shootout to avoid finishing last.