Sjoerd Marijne, perhaps, could eventually relate to Roelant Oltmans’s gripe. When he was in charge of the team, Oltmans would often moan about its inability to stick to the game plan. He even mentioned it in his official report to Hockey India. But the federation bosses saw it as an excuse and showed Oltmans the door.
On Saturday, the players justified the Dutchman’s plaint. SK Uthappa admitted it in as many words at half time when the team trailed England by a goal. Post-match, after losing 3-2, skipper Manpreet Singh too lamented the team’s inability to execute the pre-decided strategy.
When the draw for the World League Finals was released, England was the one game India were confident they could win. Alas, it wasn’t to be.
The hosts dazzled with their slick passing game against Australia on Friday. Against England, they resorted to their depressingly familiar ways. The aimless long runs returned. The one-touch play that confounded the Australians was shunned for a more individualistic style. SV Sunil was guilty of it on several occasions, running straight into the English wall despite having options to pass it forward.
The passing, so precise in the first match, was pedestrian. They lacked in pace and were predictable. The diagonal passes of Rupinder Pal Singh and Harmanpreet Singh were easily intercepted. Lalit Upadhyay, playing just behind the strikers, could not find Mandeep Singh or Akashdeep Singh. The turnovers put the defence under a lot of pressure. And they crumbled.
All three goals that India conceded came from defensive lapses. The first in the 25th minute by David Goodfield actually came off goalkeeper Suraj Karkera’s boot. However, because Goodfield had touched the ball inside the ‘D’, it was awarded to him. The error that led to England’s second goal in the 43rd minute was unpardonable.
David Condon played a hopeful aerial ball from his half into the Indian ‘D’. It was a routine ball for Harmanpreet to clear, with just Sam Ward lurking around the Indian goal and he wasn’t even putting the defender under pressure. But Harmanpreet could not trap the ball. It fell on Ward’s stick and he rolled it past Akash Chikte, who’d replaced Karkera in the second half.
India were so poor that England looked a bit surprised themselves. The home team turned up just for 10 minutes in the final quarter. During that period, they once again showed their potential. Desperate to make a comeback, they went all out. Manpreet Singh, who was closely marked throughout, played higher up the field and increased the tempo of India’s attacks.
He began linking up well with Sunil and the quick passing game returned. Suddenly, India were a team transformed. England were pushed deep into their own half and under immense pressure, they too fell apart. India earned four penalty corners in that spell and converted two of them. The first, in the 47th minute, was tapped in by Akashdeep after Rupinder’s drag-flick was feebly stopped by England goalkeeper Harry Gibson.
Three minutes later, India won another penalty corner. This time, Rupinder’s low strike to Gibson’s left was too powerful to save. A comeback that looked unthinkable at the start of the final quarter was now on. But as is the case often, India flattered to deceive.
Amidst all the attacking, India forgot to defend. Three minutes from time, Ward received a pass inside India’s ‘D’. Rupinder and Manpreet, the team’s two best performers, were in front of him. These are the two players you’d trust in these situations. Instead, Ward beat his markers and on the turn, unleashed a venomous shot to Chikte’s left. The goalie stretched but his reflexes weren’t quick enough to keep the shot out.
After a few promising minutes, India sacrificed their game plan. And with it, the match.
5:30pm – Belgium vs Spain
7:30pm – Netherlands vs Argentina