When it’s not breezy, the Kalinga Stadium can be a great expedition site for David Attenborough. Bugs of all shapes and sizes swarm your body. For the first 20, 25 minutes PR Sreejesh was hitting or crushing them, ensuring they did not enter his mouth as he barked out instructions. There wasn’t much else to do for him — India had gone two-up and had parked themselves in the South African half. While Sreejesh batted away the flies, Akashdeep Singh was swatting aside the South Africans.
There wasn’t anything new you learnt watching India demolish South Africa 5-0 in their World Cup opener. They were quick, used the wings and aerial balls to launch attacks, controlled the midfield and scored some sweet goals — all boxes ticked, as is the case with them against weaker opponents. Even then, two things stood out.
First was their tactical awareness and ability to adapt. After Mandeep Singh (10’) and Akashdeep (12’) had given India a two-goal cushion, South Africa removed a player from their three-man defence and employed him in the midfield in an attempt to put more pressure on India in that area of the field. It worked, too.
They were more aggressive in the second quarter, and the extra man helped them get into advanced positions, triggering panic in the Indian ‘D’. It took India around 2-3 minutes to figure out exactly what tweak South Africa had made that, after the two-minute quarter break, they went from being defenders to aggressors.
Once coach Harendra Singh figured that out, India responded by pushing extra bodies forward themselves instead of simply sitting back and protecting the lead. The extra thrust tore South Africa apart as India went on to score three more, and it could’ve been a lot more had the hosts been less profligate.
That brings us to the second, and more important, point that might just provide India the edge they have been lacking in big tournaments. Since making his debut in 2012, Akashdeep has been a regular in the team, but for all his smartness, he was a frustrating player to watch because he would miss more goals than he’d score.
It was an awkward scenario — his absence from the team was never felt, and it was inevitable that his presence would be questioned. Then, just before the Asian Games, Harendra changed his role in the team. From being a forward, Harendra put him on the wings and made him play as a link-man. That one change has transformed Akashdeep, so much so that you wonder why no one thought of this before.
As a forward, his peripheral vision – something that Harendra says is Akashdeep’s biggest strength – and ability to dribble past players was never fully exploited. By withdrawing him slightly, these attributes have come to the fore. He was in sizzling form throughout the Asian Games and the Asian Champions Trophy, not in terms of scoring goals but more for creating chances for his teammates.
When they are attacking, India have three forwards in the opponents’ ‘D’. Akashdeep has found them with remarkable accuracy either with his powerful crosses, or by linking up with the midfielders and working his way inside the semi-circle.
Against South Africa, the 23-year-old was falling back, pushing forward, stealing the ball, dribbling, creating goals, scoring them… phew! It was as complete a performance as one could imagine. He scored one and set up two in India’s win, and although Simranjeet Singh, the 21-year-old forward who scored twice, was named the man-of-the-match officially, there was little doubt as to which player had made the biggest impact.
Harendra likened Akashdeep’s role in the team to what Dhanraj Pillay did towards the later stage of his career. After the Sydney Olympics, the former India captain became more of a playmaker rather than a striker, a move that helped the likes of Prabhjot Singh and Deepak Thakur flourish. “If you go back 15 years, Dhanraj changed his role from the 2002 World Cup onwards. He became a playmaker and Deepak and Prabhjot scored. That’s the role I have set for him and he has executed it very well so far,” Harendra said.
Tougher tests ahead
That team, of course, had the likes of Baljit Singh Dhillon who complemented Pillay and made things easy for him during transition. Akashdeep doesn’t have that luxury yet — he has a 20-year-old Hardik Singh, the versatile midfielder who played only his seventh international match on Wednesday, and Nilakanta Singh, a 23-year-old medio, by his side. There’s Manpreet Singh, of course, but he already has his plate full with other responsibilities.
The potency of this combination will be tested against tougher opponents. India’s next game against Belgium on Sunday, will be crucial in that sense. Belgium were rusty in their 2-1 win over Canada on Wednesday, but one would expect them to be a lot sharper come Sunday.
It’s a match, after all, in which the winner will be virtually guaranteed a spot in the quarterfinal instead of going through the tricky crossover ties. It’ll be the first time Akashdeep will play in this position against an opponent of repute. And it’ll also be a tie where Sreejesh won’t have the time to swat away the flies.