(By Jugjet Singh)
MALAYSIA were the better team, but Pakistan rode on luck, to win 3-2 in the 17th Azlan Shah Cup in Ipoh yesterday. The home side displayed a level of hockey not seen the whole of this year, and Pakistan were forced to defend for more than 40 minutes but still, there were some poor finishing which will be lamented by the players in the days to come.
However, the 3,000-odd crowd at the Azlan Shah Stadium appreciated the commitment from their players, and there were a round of cheers even though the team lost. Malaysia tore the Pakistan defense in the first minute itself, and Kelvinder Singh set the stadium on fire, when he deflected in a cross off a goalmouth melee.
The Pakistanis protested, but umpire Devendra Patel stood his ground. And Malaysia almost made it 2-0 a few minutes later, but Amirullah Aziz's goal was disallowed. And there were plenty of close shaves after that.
However, Pakistan equalised in the 22nd minute, off the second penalty corner, when Muhammad Ateeq's low flick sounded the board. But even before they could settle down, Malaysia went on the counter and earned a penalty corner. Amin Rahim made it 2-1 with a low flick in the 23rd minute, and the match started to open up.
But Pakistan were in no mood to lose, and scored the equalsier again in the 28th minute. This time, it was a field effort from Shakeel Abbasi. Malaysia were in total control of the second half, as Pakistan struggled to hold back tide-after-tide of Malaysian strikers, and the only thing missing was finishing. As the minutes ticked by, Pakistan could only rely on rare counter attacks, and won two penalty corners, and the first was saved by first runner Baljit Singh Charun, but Muhammad Saqlain connected home the second one in the 60th minute, and Pakistan were in the lead for the first time in this match.
Malaysia controlled the remaining minutes of the match, and earned a penalty corner with two minutes remining, but a kamikaze run from Pakistan saw Malaysia losing their opening encounter. In the curtain raiser, New Zealand edged India 4-3. India took a 2-0 lead off Sandeep Singh's penalty corners in the 14th and 20th minutes, but the Kiwis fought back to equalsie off Lloyd Stephenson (22nd) and Simon Child (22nd). New Zealand then surged ahead with goals off Phillip Burrows (45th) and Gareth Brooks (54th).
Sandeep scored his hat-trick in the 60th minute, but the Kiwis held onto their slim lead for three points. "One can say that we have a new team after the change in management back home, and I am proud of the way they played today (yesterday). We only won three penalty corners, and scored all. This means Sandeep is back after a year's layoff," said India coach A.K. Bansal. New Zealand coach Shane McLeod was not happy with his penalty corner defense, but the three points were what his charges went in looking for.
"It is always important to win in the first match, and we did just that. I believe we will improve further in this tournament." said McLeod. In another match, Argentina were the superior side, as they showcased fantastic skills to beat Belgium 2-1. Belgium had qualifierd for the Beijing Olympics, but played well below par. Argentina got their goals off Martin Sosa (33rd) and Tomas Argento (60th), while the Belgian scorer was Jerome Truyens (54th).