China 2 India 2
The signs were obvious in Ipoh when India won the Sultan Azlan Shah Tournament. A stuttering midfield combined with a misfiring forward line was giving away enough space for a tactically sound team to surprise the Indians.
Even when India led 2-0 in the first half, the midfield was still not coming together to rally and ensure that the Chinese were stretched on the flanks; their Achilles heel.
We still kept making inroads through the centre giving away the ball so that China could use five to six strong hits to make its way into the Indian half.
When Harendra Singh, the Indian coach, says he is disappointed, it means, that he didn’t do his homework well. One could argue that India had their chances. But in modern hockey, above the misses and ball play is a clear rule – score and win. India didn’t do it and suffered.
Skipper Sandeep Singh (31st and 34th) converted two of India’s four penalty corners to put the side ahead, but the Indian defence crumbled at crucial junctures to allow China escape with a draw.
For China, Lu Feng Hui (45th) and Yu Yang (59th) sounded the boards.
India was beaten 2-3 by Pakistan in its first match of the tournament.
China’s tenacity and its ability to slow the pace of the game won the day for it against an inconsistent Indian side which played well in patches.
Even in Doha (Asian Games), the Chinese had the measure of the Indians. In that heart-breaking match, India missed at least a dozen sitters. China had a few chances and they made it count.
At Kuantan, the Indian wingers, especially Arjun Halappa, were impeccable with their crosses.
But the old and now boringly repetitive fumbles by Rajpal Singh and Prabhjot Singh cost the side dear. Nobody denies that Rajpal and Prabhjot are ball players with a tremendous amount of skills. But it doesn’t count anywhere if you are not capable of putting the ball away. Knowing that he was being crowded out by the Chinese, Rajpal only had to follow a pattern of parallel passes or working in tandem to create more penalty corners. But the individual pattern of play is so solidly ingrained in Indian players that changing tactics to suit the team needs goes to the cleaners. Only here, India went to the cleaners, failing to make it to the semi-finals. It’s a disgrace for a team that won the last two editions.
However, Sandeep, who was off-colour in the first match against Pakistan, converted two penalty corners in a span of three minutes as the defending champion went into the breather with a comfortable 2-0 lead.
Sandeep opened the scoring in the 31st minute with a fierce drag-flick that beat the Chinese custodian hands down after Tushar Khandekar had earned India’s first penalty corner.
Three minutes later, he doubled the lead with another immaculate penalty corner conversion.
With a 2-0 cushion, the Indians came out firing on all cylinders in the second half. Against the Chinese, that was like slitting your own neck. China found the space that the midfield yielded in trying to break through. What followed were swift counter-attacks.
The Chinese, who spoilt India’s medal hopes in the 2006 Asian Games with a 3-2 victory, reduced the lead in the 45th minute when Hui found the net with an indirect variation off the team’s first penalty corner.
Chinese forward Yang drove the final nail in India’s coffin in the 59th minute with a delicate touch from a free hit following a costly defensive lapse.
As India searched for the match-winner, China ensured that no mistakes happened in the defence as they kept the ball out.
With just 50 seconds to go in the match, Sandeep did get an opportunity to seal the match and a semifinal place for India.
But his drag-flick was stopped by a diving Chinese goalkeeper Su Ri Feng to kill any last hopes of the Indians.