Hockey World Cup 2023: In search of goals, India lose their goal

India were too fast and too furious, but also too fumbling and too flawed.

Their long, aerial balls floated over the advertisement boards and nearly dropped into the stands. The hurried shots sprayed all over. Their first touches abandoned them. And they were running faster than they were thinking.

All too rushed, all too forced.

To be sure, India won, as they were expected to. This was a match between hockey royalty and the sport’s upstarts; a team ranked sixth in the world against a side that was placed 38th not too long ago, before climbing up to 14th; between one of the best-funded programmes in the world and a bunch of semi-pros who had to crowd-fund their way to Odisha because they did not expect to reach this far.

But India, who are surely better than this, were guilty of looking beyond their final group-stage opponents, Wales, and being far more preoccupied by what awaited them next.

8-0 is the scoreline they targeted. 4-2 is what they got.

Over aggressive

Before they even stepped onto the field, India knew what they had to do to top the group and qualify directly for the quarterfinals. England’s 4-0 hammering of Spain just before India’s match meant the hosts had to not just beat Wales but also do it handsomely – by at least a margin of eight goals to surpass England’s superior goal difference.

As India pressed forward, chasing the target of eight goals, they left their defence completely exposed.

And before England set India that lofty target, the crowd’s expectations of a goal-fest had increased after watching the Netherlands put 14 past a hapless Chile, setting a World Cup record in the process. While the Dutch managed that without really having to go beyond the second gear, India played the entire 60 minutes on the top gear but never really got going.

Playing to the gallery, the home team started as if they wanted to score all those goals in the opening quarter itself. They went from 0-to -100 in less than 10 seconds, when they first raided the Welsh ‘D’. But inside a crowded circle, they never looked composed enough to score.

Indian hockey players stand in a huddle.

Eventually, they had to fight it out for a close win, which meant India finished second in Pool D behind England but ahead of Spain and Wales. Their path to quarterfinals now gets complicated as they will next take on New Zealand in a crossover match on Sunday. Only a win there will ensure a place in the last 8, where either Belgium or Germany await barring a seismic upset. New Zealand, on paper, shouldn’t pose a massive threat. But the team’s struggles in the attacking third means the playoff will be trickier than imagined.

India’s goal-scoring woes were exposed once again on Thursday, with the biggest concern being the paucity from penalty corners.

Forlorn skipper

Captain Harmanpreet Singh took five out of India’s seven penalty corners. But he often cut a forlorn figure on top of the ‘D’ as he either did not get a clean connection on his drag-flicks or they were blocked by the first rushers and the goalkeeper. India’s drag flicks lacked creativity and variation, even when Harmanpreet—who converted one right at the end—was not taking them. Varun Kumar’s low shot and Amit Rohidas’s knee-high shot too failed to breach the Welsh wall, which was manned masterfully by goalkeeper Toby Reynolds-Cotterill.

India committed too many men into the circle.

The ‘Big Cat’, as he’s called, pulled off a string of remarkable saves, including a sharp double save, which he celebrated with a big leap and a fist pump, as if he’d just won the World Cup.

The goalkeeper’s indomitable presence only added to India’s frustration inside the attacking third, which grew as the game progressed. With the team unable to make anything out of the PCs they smartly earned, the forwards pressed ahead and raided the Welsh ‘D’. And while their build-up play was breathtaking at times, they weren’t clinical enough to finish off the moves.

India committed too many men into the circle. With Wales playing man-to-man while defending, the ‘D’ got too crowded and India struggled for space to get a clean shot at goal.

It took some delightful link-up play and clever off-the-ball movement from Indian forwards to breach the Welsh defence. A lot of it came from Akashdeep Singh, who not just scored a couple of fabulous goal but also was present everywhere on the field, trying to force things. He combined well with Mandeep Singh, who constantly made a nuisance of him inside the circle, dragging defenders out of position to make space for others. Mandeep and Akashdeep were responsible for a beautiful goal by opening up the defence with brilliant give-and-go passing, with the latter finishing off the move.

But as India pressed forward, chasing the target of eight goals, they left their defence completely exposed and ended up conceding two, which made an already tough task beyond their reach.

“The result was okay,” Harmanpreet said. “But this wasn’t our best performance. We are better than this,” he said, looking to exit the press conference room in a rush. Just like they were on the field.

Too rushed, too reckless.

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