London: Their toughest game, against the Netherlands, is yet to come. But that takes nothing away from what India have done so far in the Hockey World League Semi-Final: undefeated, three wins in a row, 14 goals scored in total, 11 field goals, just two goals conceded, a best-ever, 7-1 win against Pakistan and a place in the knockouts earned without relying on other results and a couple of key players. Not often have things fallen in place for Indian hockey with such sureness.
Complacency could have easily found its way into the Indian dugout with spots in the HWL Final and 2018 World Cup secured as hosts. But the team had that threat under check and entered the knockouts in style – with an emphatic, blistering win over arch-rivals Pakistan.
Pakistan, reeling under the pressure of two defeats before Sunday, were deflated by synchronised Indian attacks, a well-managed midfield and a responsible defence. They got a late goal, but it proved nothing more than a good-natured gift from the neighbours.
Since the wake-up call as early as six minutes into the tournament, when Scotland took the lead, the Indian team hasn’t looked back, registering a 4-1 win against the Scots, cruising past Canada 3-0 and then hammering Pakistan 7-1. An entry into the quarter-finals confirmed, India now await the identity of their opponents.
Forwards on song
India’s forwards had a point to prove in London, and they have done it in style – Akashdeep Singh leading the way with four goals in three matches. Finishing was India’s Achilles heel at the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup, but Oltmans seems to have ironed out the flaws to get the best results.
In the first match against Scotland, it was Ramandeep Singh’s two field goals that brought India back into the reckoning. And against Pakistan on Sunday, Akashdeep and Talwinder Singh scored a brace each. SV Sunil, Sardar Singh and Pardeep Mor are the others who have converted a field-goal chance each.
“I am happy with the performance of our strikers. Almost each of them has made a contribution, which shows in the 11 field goals we have scored so far. Today’s (against Pakistan) was an emphatic win because of that, and it makes all of us happy” India coach Roelant Oltmans said.
Midfield in control
India have controlled play in the midfield, especially with Sardar playing a multipurpose role as a withdrawn centre-half as well as moving up whenever space and movement allow. His brilliance was exhibited in the way he combined with Ramandeep and Sunil to score against Canada, and then set up Akashdeep against Canada.
Captain Manpreet Singh and his fellow centre-half Harjeet Singh have done feeding duties appreciably, especially Manpreet who is acting as a pivot moving up with the forwards and then falling back to defend and cut the lines.
“We are playing according to a plan and able to execute it well so far. It will be a tough match against Netherlands, but we have time to strategise for what will be a big game,” Manpreet told The Field.
Defence steps up
It was tough to expect too much from a relatively young Indian defence, with no Rupinder Pal Singh and VR Raghunath. The ever-reliable and regular skipper PR Sreejesh too is missing due to an injury he suffered in Malaysia. But the defenders have responded in the best possible way.
Conceding just two goals in three games speaks volumes about Harmanpreet Singh, Kothajit Singh, Pardeep Mor and Jasjit Singh Kular, who have shored up India’s backline in the absence of stalwarts.
No appreciation is enough for goalkeepers Akash Chikte and Vikas Dahiya who have shared duties in the post and come up with some stellar saves in three matches.
Having said that, Netherlands will be their biggest test in the pool stage, but the confidence of three consecutive wins, including a big one over Pakistan, can do wonders to any young player; and the Indian defence will like to take that confidence into the game against the Dutch and the knockouts thereafter.