It’s never easy to watch stalwarts struggle. When the spark is missing, or age and injuries catch up with the body and mind, even the best find it difficult to do what came second nature to them.
Sardar Singh, Rupinder Pal Singh and SV Sunil are three of the biggest names in Indian hockey at the moment. They are also the lynchpins of their Hockey India League teams. But they were far from their best at the less-than-half-full Shivaji Stadium on Tuesday evening. In their pomp, they used to control games and influence results, but those qualities were missing when the competition visited the national capital for the first time this season.
Going into the match, Delhi Waveriders were bottom of the six-team table and needed a good result against Jaypee Punjab Warriors, perched immediately above them, though both had several games in hand in comparison to the top three teams in the competition. And it was the visitors who came out smiling at the end of the 60 minutes with a 3-2 verdict.
Sardar wore the captain’s armband for the Punjab Warriors, but though he would be happy with the result, the same may not be said about his personal performance on the day. The speed and passing accuracy, that were once the hallmarks of his game, were not much in evidence. He was also frequently dispossessed by opponents, and his forward forays thwarted.
Rupinder has made his name mainly as a drag-flicker, and the power off his stick has left many a goalkeeper and defender bamboozled. But he has been strangely off-colour so far in the HIL. On Tuesday, the Waveriders earned four penalty corners, and on the first three their skipper had a direct attempt at goal. The first one struck goalkeeper Tristan Clemons’ pads and was subsequently cleared, the second hit an on-rushing charger and deflected on to the foot of an attacker, and the third missed the target altogether. The fourth penalty corner came in the dying moments of the match, and was pushed out of the circle in search of a two-goal attempt and victory, but to no avail.
Sunil’s speed and ability to take on defenders made him one of the most eye-catching players in the game, but a spate of injuries seems to have dulled his prowess. He huffed and puffed on Tuesday, but could not influence the game as he used to.
The match itself failed to rise to any great heights in the initial stages. Satbir Singh was the livewire for the visitors, while almost all of the Waveriders’ attacks went through Mandeep Singh. The youngster found himself isolated on more than one occasion, and when he did get into good positions, he fluffed his lines.
Satbir, who had missed a tap-in in the first few minutes, made amends just before the end of the first quarter. Manuel Brunet won the gold medal with Argentina at the Rio Olympics, but the impressive Satbir harried him outside the Delhi striking circle before dispossessing him. He then found Robert van der Horst with a pinpoint pass at the top of the ‘D’ and the acclaimed Dutchman let go a bullet of a reverse hit, which beat Waveriders’ Belgian custodian Vincent Vanasch and found the far corner of the goal to make it 2-0.
The hosts now had to come out of their shells in the second quarter in search of the equaliser, but a lack of cutting edge in the attacking third and profligacy in front of the target scuppered their efforts. Cedric D’Souza’s team had been goal-shy in their previous three matches, and the problem is yet to be rectified.
But their efforts bore fruit in the third quarter, and they had to thank the Punjab Warriors defence for the leveller. The visitors were caught napping when the umpire played advantage during a Waveriders attack. Before they could get their act together, Aussie Tristan White was at the right place at the right time and turned home a loose ball.
A period of Waveriders’ sustained pressure followed, but the Clemons’ goalkeeping skills and the ageless class of his fellow Australian Mark Knowles kept the hosts at bay. And they reaped rewards soon. With seven minutes left, Punjab Warriors earned just their second penalty corner and Dutch drag-flicker Mink van der Weerden’s powerful low shot found the bottom right corner. As the hosts went in search for another goal, but found little joy, D’Souza cut a frustrated figure on the touchline.