India skipper Harjeet Singh walked in with swag after India had defeated England 5-3 on Saturday. His side was ruthless against the European Championship bronze medallists, hammering the proverbial nail in their coffin.
On Monday, though, Harjeet was more downcast. He was locked in an animated debate with a couple of his teammates as they walked off the pitch, pointing towards South Africa’s 25-yard line. He had scored one goal in India’s 2-1 win over South Africa, but Harjeet wildly gesticulated towards the areas of the pitch where the team wasn’t clinical.
This was India’s third straight win, which helped them top Pool D. But if Spain, India’s quarterfinal opponents, would have watched Monday’s match, they’d suddenly give themselves a good chance of pulling off an upset against the hosts.
It was a win, alright. And the stats will also show it was pretty one-sided as well. India entered South Africa’s ‘D’ 33 times in the 70 minutes, once almost every two minutes. South Africa, on the other hand, managed just 17 circle penetrations. India had double the shots than South Africa as well, six compared to their three, and enjoyed 59 percent possession. But as the old cliché goes, statistics often hide more than they reveal.
The hallmark of the recent Indian teams – junior and senior – is the manner in which their attack flows; ball being smoothly passed around from one stick to another at a high tempo with minimal dribbling. That’s when they are most dangerous. The Indian team calls it ‘simple’ hockey.
For the first 10 minutes, India stuck to their plans. It yielded instant results, with Harjeet putting hosts in the front as early as the 11th minute. But then, style overtook substance. Every once in a while, though, the ‘simple’ gave away to the complicated. India have a tendency of reverting to their old habit of holding the ball for an extra second. It breaks the flow of the attack, slows down the pace and gives the opponents time to restructure their defence. Against South Africa, India were guilty of doing just that.
Striker Armaan Qureshi put it down to complacency. But he could have well described it as overconfidence and it would still mean the same. The players, Qureshi admitted, knew at the back of their mind they had sealed their quarterfinals berth.
It also meant they had underestimated South Africa, lulled into believing that there wasn’t even a remote chance of an upset. That mindset resulted in the players taking some freedom, which they wouldn’t have against tougher opponents. “We ran unnecessarily with the ball. We had the possession but weren’t really doing much with it,” Qureshi confided.
South Africa, too, were smart in their approach. Unlike England, they sat back and happily let India do all the fancy stuff and play to the gallery, which was filled by thousands, braving the evening chill and fog. The defenders held their line well, barring the one moment wherein they conceded a soft penalty corner, which allowed Kyle Lion-Cachet to score the equaliser. Other than that, they were precise with their timing of individual tackles and goalkeeper Vikas Dahiya pulled off a stunning save in the final moments to ensure three points. But the attackers were wasteful. Despite all the possession and circle entries, they could barely manage a serious effort on goal. The forwards tried penetrating South Africa’s defence from the wings and centre, but they were well organized and shut the doors firmly on India.
It took Mandeep Singh’s brilliance in the 55th minute to break the deadlock. He brilliantly controlled a powerful ball drilled in by Harjeet, and beat South African goalkeeper Siyavuya Nolutshunghu with a reverse flick. Apart from the goal, Mandeep had also created two penalty corners, but Harmanpreet Singh’s poor drag-flicking form meant India could not extend their lead. In the end, India clung on to the win. But the side’s performance raised more questions about their title credentials. “I’ll repeat what Harjeet said the other day, humein itne keel gaadhne chahiye the ki murde uth na sake,” coach Harendra Singh said. “We started with that attitude. But after 10 minutes, we lost our killer instinct. Against tougher teams, we can’t afford that.” That’s exactly what they’ll be aspiring for in the knockouts.