Indian men’s hockey team produced a clinical performance to beat South Africa 5-1 and clinch the winners’ crown of the FIH Series Finals tournament in Bhubaneshwar on Saturday.
Varun Kumar (2’, 49’), Harmanpreet Singh (11’, 25’), Vivek Sagar Prasad (35’) scored the goals for India while Richard Pautz hit a late consolation for South Africa.
India scored 35 goals overall in the tournament, conceding just four as Graham Reid registered his first title triumph as the head coach. The FIH Series Finals offer two spots in the final round of Olympic qualifiers to be held later this year and finalists India and South Africa had already sealed their places for that round of matches.
The battle between the two top-ranked sides in the tournament (India at No 5 and South Africa at No 16) turned out to be an one-sided affair for the most part.
India started the match on the front foot, forcing a penalty corner in the second minute and Varun Kumar made no mistake, slotting the ball home to the left of the South African goalkeeper. The men in blue produced wave after wave of attacks in the first quarter and the only time the ball reached Indian custodian Krishan Pathak was when it was passed back to him by his teammate in the first five minutes.
In the 11th minute, Mandeep Singh earned India’s second penalty corner and, this time, Harmanpreet Singh doubled the lead with a dragflick through the middle of the net. South Africa made a rare circle penetration and Krishan Pathak was forced into action for the first time at the fag end of the first quarter but the Indian defence dealt with the threat rather easily.
India started the second quarter with the same attacking intent, even as South Africa forced panic once again among the hosts defenders. With less than five minutes left in the half, Birendra Lakra was obstructed inside the striking circle and India were awarded a penalty stroke. And Harmanpreet made no mistake to extend India’s lead and score his second of the night.
After three set-play goals, Vivek showed brilliant awareness to tap the ball in after Simranjeet Singh had dribbled past a couple of defenders and pushed the ball towards him.
In an otherwise near-flawless tournament, Mandeep Singh really struggled to find the net for India and he could not apply the finishing touches on a few occasions after good play by the midfielders.
In the fourth quarter, India won their fourth PC and converted for the third time. This was a variation that the Indians attempted as Haramanpreet fed Varun Kumar with a clever lay off, and the latter sent a rasping flick into the back of the net for his second of the night to extend India’s lead to 5-0.
With the clock ticking down, India conceded a couple of soft penalty corners. The visitors managed to reduce the margin on second attempt through an indirect conversation with Pautz getting the final touch. It seemed that the Indian team had taken their foot off from the accelerator in the last few minutes but the hosts had built such a big lead that it hardly mattered.
Harmanpreet was declared player of the match.
Earlier, Asian Games champions Japan defeated USA 4-2 in a hard-fought match to finish third.
World No 18 Japan scored through Kazuma Murata (11th), Yoshiki Krishita (25th), Kenta Tanaka (60th and 60th) to emerge winners. World No 25 USA gave a good account of themselves with Aki Kaeppler converting two penalty corners to give Japan a tough fight.
It was a hard-fought encounter as there was hardly anything to differentiate between the two sides in terms of ball possession.
However, in terms of experience it turned out to be a great outing for the Americans as they had outplayed higher-ranked teams to finish on top of their pool.
Japan, meanwhile, approached the tournament as a preparation for next year’s Tokyo Olympics after having qualified for the quadrennial event as continental champions as well as hosts.