The noise that emanated from the Athletics arena of Kalinga Stadium – when AR Rahman belted out his famous song Maa Tujhe Salaam in the opening ceremony – on Tuesday was nothing compared to the deafening roars witnessed in the hockey arena on Wednesday. The hockey stadium, which was half-filled in the World Cup opener between Belgium and Canada, was swarming with people (and insects) when, at 7 pm, India was warming-up to take on South Africa.
The partisan crowd got what it wanted: a big win in the first game for the home team. Whenever India scored a goal – or even came close to scoring one (happened on at least two occasions) – the crowd hit a crescendo.
But there were phases, wherein they gasped and were forced into dormancy by the visiting South Africans.
Of course, for the crowd, all was well in the end. But for India, this is just the beginning. The result – a 5-0 thrashing of South Africa – is what they would have expected of themselves against a side that’s ranked 10 places lower. But there were a few areas on Wednesday, wherein the hosts slipped up or revealed a room for improvement.
One, of course, is the pet peeve of Indian hockey – penalty corners. More than the number of penalty corners (India converted two of their four chances), India would be bothered with the execution of it.
Harmanpreet, who was outstanding in the defence, wasn’t at his best in his role as the team’s chief drag-flicker (in the absence of the injured Rupinder Pal Singh).
But the success of a penalty corner doesn’t rest solely on the drag-flicking alone – it is an integral element, not the whole. The push-out and the trap need to be perfect to enable the drag-flicker to do his thing. On Wednesday, India did not trap the ball well, too.
In the penalty corner they got in the 46th minute, for instance, Nilakanta Sharma failed to trap captain Manpreet Singh’s injection well. Harmanpreet, hence, failed to get hold of the ball whilst attempting a drag-flick. Nilakanta then hurriedly pushed the ball to Varun Kumar on his left. Varun’s shot was deflected by the South African goalie and India, ultimately, managed to convert this short-corner when an unmarked Simranjeet Singh slotted the ball in.
The penalty corner India missed in the beginning of the third quarter, too, was due to poor trapping.
When asked in the post-match media interaction if this concerned him, Harendra replied: “We scored the goals, no matter how we score on PCs. We will go back in the meeting room where we lacked when we mis-stopped. But I am happy we recovered and even scored from those opportunities.”
The coach didn’t dwell too much on the aspects wherein India needed improvement – that discussion, he said, was strictly for the dressing room.
Akashdeep’s new role
Among the things that worked well for India on Wednesday were Akashdeep Singh in role as the playmaker – something that Sardar Singh used to do – and the saves of PR Sreejesh.
Akashdeep, who used to be a full-blooded striker, will be tested against tougher opponents but against the South Africans, he seemed adequate in his new role. “He has very good peripheral vision. He is lethal as a link man. We have three strikers floating inside the circle. If you go back 15 years, Dhanraj changed his role from the 2002 world Cup. He became a playmaker and Deepak and Prabhjot scored. I am very happy with Akash. He is taking the lead,” said the coach about Akashdeep.
There was a phase in the match – the first 10 minutes of third quarter – wherein South Africa, after conceding two goals, began to slowly transfer the pressure onto the hosts.
India’s explosive pace witnessed in the first half of the game, especially in the first quarter, was missing. This allowed the South Africans to get hold of the ball more easily. They dominated possession, breached the hosts’ circle and came close to scoring their first goal. But even as they beat the defenders, PR Sreejesh was impenetrable.
South African coach Mark Hopkins reflected on the importance of his save. “When we were 2-0 down Sreejesh made a very nice save. Had that gone in for 2-1, the game would have changed. We missed and they scored three after that,” he said.
The scoreline of 5-0 might gloss over India’s chinks but even Harendra will need to address them before they take on world No 3 Belgium on Sunday.