Following their male counterparts’ gritty 2-1 triumph over Malaysia, the Indian women’s hockey team edged South Africa, thanks to a superb Rani Rampal winner, to finish behind England in Pool A and qualify for the semi-finals of the Commonwealth Games.

For the first time in many years, the Indian men and women have evoked hopes of winning gold at the Games. The men have entered the semi-final unbeaten, albeit a group game against England remains.

The women, though, appeared shaky in their 3-4 defeat to the lower-ranked Wales in the tournament-opener. After the triumphant returns from the Asia Cup and the tour of South Korea, the India was expected to trounce the 26th-ranked Welsh side. But Rani and company stuttered in their first game, which exposed a few chinks in the Indian armour.

A few of them, they have rectified in their subsequent victories against Malaysia, England and South Africa; the rest, they have to soon, ahead of the semi-finals that begins on Thursday.

Passing woes

One of the areas that make India’s game appear fractured is their reception of passes. The imprecise timing of the pass or hitting the ball in the air makes it tough to collect the pass and maintain a flow in the game.

In the matches against Wales and South Africa, the Indian women were seen holding the ball for too long or attempting abrupt passes that were easily intercepted by the opposition, which, in turn, aided their counter-attacks.

“Intercept, keep rotating, penetrate. We have to do that all the time,” coach Harendra Singh reminded the team after the end of the third quarter against South Africa, with the scoreline still 0-0. Except Gurjit Kaur’s thunderous hit, off a penalty corner, that struck the aluminium bar holding the opposition net, there were no shots in the first half that threatened the opposition. Several spurring runs and deft interceptions, one could see, but none of them possessed the threat of goal. Moments of brilliance – one of which culminated in a thoroughly eye-pleasing Rani Rampal winner – were rare.

Dormant first-halves

In two hours of the first halves they played against the four teams, India have collectively scored a goal (against Malaysia) and conceded three. They have invariably gone into the second half in all the games with the pressure of either catching up or scoring to consolidate their position.

Wales 0-2 2-3
Malaysia 1-0 4-1
England 0-1 2-1
South Africa 0-0 1-0

Playing with pressure in the group games, sometimes, helps players in the make-or-break contests. For, the anxiety that arises out of the compulsion to score in the dying minutes of game, they would have already dealt with.

But it will be better for India if they can strike the first blow, especially against the higher-ranked teams. Against Wales, they were two goals down after the first half. They found it tough to regroup, equalise and increase their attack to beat them in the second half. And, this was against the second-lowest ranked team in the competition. The fightback, then, will be tougher against a higher-ranked opponent in a knockout game. Also, with the passing not proper, there’s always a danger of conceding a goal during a desperate counter-attack.

So, India – like they did against Malaysia – must score in the first half so it can play more freely in the second.

The PC problem

This is something that’s been ailing Indian hockey for a while now. The numbers of penalty corner conversion find their way into most post-match analyses, especially after an Indian defeat. The men are accused of wasting the opportunities that come their way. This tournament, they have converted only six of the 26 chances.

The women fare worse:-

First match vs Wales: 1/15

Second match vs Malaysia: 2/7

Third match vs England: 0/6

Fourth match vs South Africa: 0/2

Total conversions: 1/30

Against teams that possess a solid defence, India mightn’t get as many chances it did against Wales. Against South Africa, for instance, it got only two. So, it’s pertinent, then, to score off those limited chances. But apart from Gurjit’s powerhit against South Africa (that almost fetched India a goal), there aren’t even a handful of PCs, wherein India have threatened to score.

Coach Harendra Singh likened the accomplishment of clinching the Commonwealth Games gold medal to the ascent of Mount Everest. The climb, then, for Rani Rampal and her team-mates might get more slippery and they must be more careful now in order to reach the summit.