The long-standing inside joke in the Indian hockey circle is to keep the men’s team in the dark about the identity of the tournament till after it has actually ended to get the best out of them. Outside the country, most teams insist the team is tough to beat at home. Friday was both as India started its post-World Cup rebuilding with a 3-2 win against reigning champion Germany.
At the capacity Birsa Munda International Hockey Stadium – the venue of its last competitive outing more than a month back – India played like it was expected to, with pace and without pressure, after taking time to get its rhythm. It created chances, pushed hard, found the gaps, and defended like a wall – things it did during the World Cup as well. But they also adapted, switched between possession hockey and quick passing and improved as the game wore on, things they had faltered in.
Ahead of the game, captain Harmanpreet Singh had almost seemed riled by the repeated references to the World Cup. He appeared ready to move on and did, converting India’s first penalty corner at the stroke of halftime – a low flick to the right with the power that had been sorely missed. That he missed a crucial penalty stroke right at the end would rankle, though.
Harmanpreet had also spoken about slight experiments with positioning. Whether it was strategic or not, the return of a fully-fit Hardik Singh and Sumit in the middle meant relieving Manpreet Singh of at least one of the multiple roles the latter had been forced to play. He was free to supplement the attack and the defence, along with Vivek Sagar Prasad, and was outstanding everywhere.
Sukhjit struck twice, taking full advantage of being perfectly positioned in front of the goal and put through, first by Jarmanpreet Singh on the move diagonally from the half line on the right and then by Manpreet doing the same from the left – passes to cherish for the ages.
The Germans, patient with their short, accurate passes consolidating and building from the flanks, were never out of the game, though, threatening to score off counterattacks and keeping the Indians on their toes.
An advancing PR Sreejesh, without any defensive backup, was beaten by Paul-Philipp Kaufmann in the 44th minute to reduce the margin. Michel Struthoff got one three minutes from time.
The result: India 3 (Sukhjit Singh 2, Harmanpreet Singh) bt Germany 2 (Paul-Philipp Kaufmann, Michel Struthoff).