Hockey World Cup: India avoid further embarrassment with 8-0 rout of hapless Japan

More than 72 hours had passed but Graham Reid still looked pensive when he led his team into the dugout. Twice in 10 seconds moments before pushback, the India coach described how tough the last couple of days had been for him and the team. And the after-effects of the shock defeat against New Zealand showed even though India eked out a consolation win against Japan.

As the world’s elite teams battle it out in the marquee matches of the World Cup in Bhubaneswar, India – dispatched to Rourkela after losing the playoff for the quarterfinals – began its quest to be the best among the rest with an emphatic 8-0 win over their Asian rivals. India will now play South Africa in their final match of the World Cup on Saturday.

It took a while for India to shrug off their disappointment but when they finally managed to hit their stride – from the start of the third quarter – they looked unstoppable, almost as if they were venting out all their pent-up frustration from the last three days on a hapless Japanese side.

The forwards looked sharper than ever before in the World Cup. The drag-flickers showed the kind of subtlety and creativity that had eluded them so far. And the midfield played with such authority that Japan barely managed to get beyond their half. Even Harmanpreet Singh, who had half a dozen go from drag-flicks, managed to end his woes and beat a goalkeeper, scoring a brace that reminded why he was hyped as the team’s go-to source of goals.

Rourkela: India’s Harmanpreet Singh takes a shot during a classification match of the 2023 Men’s FIH Hockey World Cup against Japan, at Birsa Munda International Hockey Stadium in Rourkela, Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023. (PTI Photo)(PTI01_26_2023_000460B)

One wondered where this Indian team was all this while. But perhaps, it was a realisation at halftime that they had nothing to lose that allowed them to play with such freedom. Or maybe, it was the desperation to save further humiliation.

Whatever the case, it was an Olympic medal-winning side that finally looked the part. Not a bunch of imposters who’d stumbled at the first knockout-round hurdle to make an early exit from a World Cup in their own backyard.

Sloppy start

They very nearly stumbled once again. India were once again very hurried in the first two quarters, losing shape and structure as they continued to be profligate in attack and porous defensively. But for PR Sreejesh, who kept goal in only the second quarter, India would not have enjoyed their third clean sheet of the tournament.

The veteran custodian, who had injured his knee during the penalty shootout against New Zealand, pulled off some impressive saves in the second period when Japan looked the most dangerous and bypassed the Indian midfield with utmost ease. As India struggled to get a hold over proceedings, their frustrations compounded as Harmanpreet’s struggles from penalty corners continued. The India captain missed all four PCs that he took as the home team went into the half-time break tied at 0-0.

That changed immediately three minutes into the third quarter when India earned a corner, which was taken by Amit Rohidas. But instead of a direct shot at goal, he played it in the path of Mandeep Singh to the left of the goalkeeper and the striker neatly deflected the ball in. It was one of the rare occasions in this World Cup that India’s PC variation worked flawlessly and the goal opened the floodgates.

Abhishek (36’, 44’), Vivek Sagar Prasad (40’), Harmanpreet (46’, 60’) and Manpreet Singh (59’) all got on the score sheet. And by the time Sukhjeet Singh scored from the rebound off a Harmanpreet drag-flick, smiles had returned on the faces of the players as well as the thousands in the stands.

It may have been only a consolation win, but one that saved India from further embarrassment.

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