The India Under-21 team squandered three penalty corners and as many clear chances in their second and final practice match before the Junior Hockey World Cup,which begins on Friday. Yet,Wednesday evenings result notwithstanding at any rate,scorelines in practice matches are irrelevant the colts will take a lot of positive from this performance as they were playing a highly-rated team,Belgium,who are the reigning champions of Europe at the under-21 level.
India came into the match,having defeated England 4-1 on Saturday. However,their performance in that match,it is understood,caused some consternation within the camp. Maybe because the Indians looked a bit slow and their passing wasnt really up to scratch.
Then on Monday,they played an unscheduled practice match against South Africa. During a passage of play,the South Africans rattled their defence with repeated forays into the circle. The alarm bells rang.
The Belgium fixture was more than just practice,then. It was an exercise in getting the confidence back.
The first half didnt go exactly as planned. Belgium were too fresh and too strong in the beginning. They defended in numbers and impressively,smothering the Indian mid-field. Each time captain Manpreet Singh got the ball,three Belgian players converged on him from different directions.
The same was true of Satbir Singh,Imran Khan,Kothajit Singh or Pradeep Mor.
Still,on those occasions that they raided the oppositions D,they looked threatening. India got an early penalty corner,in the third minute,but their No.1 dragflicker,Gurjinder Singh was on the bench at that time. And Sukhmanjit Singhs low hit to the left post was easily defended by the goalkeeper.
At the other end,the Belgian forwards were profligate as well,and there were quite a few crosses into the Indian D that went a-begging. India got another penalty in the 15 minute,and this time Gurjinder was there,but the ball couldnt be stopped for the dragflick.
After the pep talk by coach Gregg Clark during the break,India started the second half with such focus and intent as if they were told their appraisals would be distributed at the end of those 20 minutes. They laid a siege of the Belgian half and came close to scoring twice in three minutes,but first Ramadeep Singh couldnt deflect a Talwinder Singh cross into the open goal and later Mandeep Singhs goal-bound strike was spectacularly blocked by the Belgian goalie.
Suddenly,the roles seemed out have reversed. Now,it were the Belgian players who were struggling to trap the ball and they seemed to be swept away by the Indian pace. They improvised soon,however,by slowing down the game down. Their back line started passing the ball around among themselves – at one stage,Belgiums centre back and right back made 16 passes to each other as rest of the players on the field just stood and watched this indulgence.
It broke the momentum,and India wouldnt get another chance till the dying minutes when an counterattack resulted in a penalty corner. Gurjinder was on the field this time too,and the ball was stopped all right,but the drag-flick went high above the bar. There were oohs in the Indian dugout and a sigh of relief in the Belgian camp. Tahir Zaman,who is with the Pakistan team and who saw his Pool A rivals Belgium in action,gave his verdict. This Belgium side is very good. I would say they are better than Germany, he said. But going by this match,I think India were superior.