The scoreboard read 3-1 in India’s favor as the clock ticked down to the last 10 minutes at the Glasgow National Hockey Centre. Wales had long given up any hopes of stitching together an attack.
India had the ball and the it seemed the players would be licking their lips as they went about prising the Welsh defense open.
Inexplicably, though, the next ten minutes saw India misplace 27 of their 65 passes as no-one in the team looked in any real hurry to press the Welsh for possession.
Suddenly emboldened, the Welsh defence played out a long pass forward, Liam Brignull the central midfielder picked it up and simply meandered past a static and almost uninterested VR Raghunath.
As the lumbering defender made a belated attempt to track back, a muscular 6’4’’ one-man wall blocked Brignull’s path, scooping the ball out of his reach with one deft flick of his wrists.
This wasn’t the first time that Rupinder Pal Singh had bailed India out of trouble in their Commonwealth Games opener against a strictly modest Welsh side.
The strapping right full-back tirelessly ran the length of the pitch, created chances aplenty, played the role of a sweeper efficiently and also scored the goal that got India in front again.
The 23-year-old, one of the very few bright spots in India’s disastrous World Cup last month, said later that if the team had to be taken seriously in the tournament, their defense would need to wake up soon. “We made a lot of silly errors today. We couldn’t man-mark properly at all and in the first half we were leaving too much space open as everyone tried to go about creating goals,” he said.
VR Raghnunath had given India the lead in the 20th minute before Andrew Cornick drew Wales level three minutes later. The first half finished at a goal apiece with Wales looking more confident of the two sides.
In the second half, with the energetic Gurbaj Singh for company, Rupinder came into his own. The pair combined beautifully, feeding SV Sunil down the the right flank before making their way to the centre to create opportunity after opportunity.
Rupinder duly hammered in a penalty corner seven minutes into the second half, the speed and the accuracy on the drag-flick being too much for the Welsh keeper.
Chandigarh’s Rupinder, who has 90 international caps, learnt his craft, especially his penalty corner conversion, under Jugraj Singh. He also said he minutely observed fellow defender Sandeep Singh’s drag-flick skill.
“It is just a matter of rhythm for me. If I get a chance to practice my flicks for even 10 minutes undisturbed, I completely back myself to convert PC’s in a match. Rhythm is the key,” he says.
Regarded as a like-for-like replacement of the 28-year-old Sandeep when it comes to taking drag-flicks, Rupinder is a much better defender than the former, often anticipating danger and maneuvering himself into effective positions.
A hard-worker, Rupinder often stayed behind after India’s training sessions at Glasgow, completing a variety of agility and movement drills. That endless running around and jumping over cones and markers seemed to have its effect on Friday as the defender marshalled the Indian back-line effectively.
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However, if India have to pose a strong challenge, they will need to fine-tune their act, that too quickly. They play Scotland on Saturday. A win will give them a very healthy chance of making it out of the pool. For coach Terry Walsh, addressing the listlessness towards the end will be crucial.
Though Wales did not pose much of an attacking threat, the performance of Raghnunath and Birendra Lakra, left a lot to be desired. The youthful Manpreet Singh did add a dash of zing, but ended up conceding possession in forward areas all too often, putting more pressure on Rupinder, dragging him out of position.
The midfield without Sardar Singh’s calming presence too seemed a little off, guilty of keeping possession for too long allowing the Welsh to get enough bodies behind the ball.
Gurwinder Singh Chandi who scored India’s third goal combined well with Danish Mujtaba, Akashdeep Singh and SV Sunil, but with just one field goal to show for their 14 attempts, the forward line would like to do better in the next match.
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