Inspiring display

Asia No. 1... the Chinese team with the Asia Cup.-PICS: AP

After playing second fiddle to China in the first half of the final, India fought back gallantly but missed the gold medal by a whisker. It was a memorable performance though, as India qualified for the World Cup in Argentina next year. By S. Thyagarajan.

Eventful, exciting, and exhilarating in parts, the seventh edition of the Asia Cup in Bangkok mirrored the growing popularity of women’s hockey. For the first time in the history of the championship there were 11 teams in the fray, engendering hope that women’s hockey is on an upward curve.

What provided the competition with more than ordinary interest was that it was the basis for identifying the top two teams — the finalists to be precise — as the automatic qualifiers for next year’s World Cup in Argentina.

That India emerged as one of the automatic qualifiers for the World Cup along with China was happy tidings. It indeed missed the gold medal by a whisker. The 5-3 verdict in the final was a telling commentary on the fightback staged by India after trailing 1-3 at half-time.

There was enough to exasperate the contestants, what with a power failure that delayed the start by 45 minutes, followed by a heavy downpour that stretched the intermission by 20 minutes. Yet the Indians, who appeared to be in danger of being swept off their feet by the Chinese power machine despite taking an early lead through Surinder Kaur, displayed enough verve, vigour and variations to rattle their rival in the second half. Perhaps, India’s fightback came a wee bit late, having played second fiddle to China for the major part of the first half.

The chief coach, M. K. Kaushik, said India’s silver medal-winning performance was more praiseworthy than its success in the Champions Challenge II in Kazan (Russia) earlier this year. He cannot be faulted for this observation, for the quality of the opposition in Bangkok was far better and the Indian team played with a touch of assurance and adeptness almost throughout the tournament and hit peak form with a classy display against the three-time champion, South Korea, in the semifinal. While the 3-2 verdict against Korea tells its own tale, what it does not convey is the beauty, conception and execution of two of the goals — one by Jasjeet Kaur Handa, an immaculately executed penalty flick, and the other by Rani Rampal, a brilliant backhander — that will remain etched in memory for years to come.

To praise just one or two players for India’s good showing will be invidious. As Kaushik stressed, it was a team effort where every player pulled her weight. True, Singapore and Thailand proved to be easy meat, but India had palpably struggled to earn a point against Malaysia.

If consistency is any yardstick, then top marks should go to the mid-fielders, Asunta Lakra and Dipika Thakur. Credit should also go to full-back Binita Toppo, who scored the equaliser from a penalty corner against Malaysia, and the seasoned Subadra Pradhan. Goalkeeper Dipika Murty excelled against South Korea in the semifinal. Surinder Kaur had the unenviable job of co-ordinating the frontline that did not always function with a measure of efficiency. Saba Anjum and Jasjeet Handa shouldered a lot of burden, as did Mamta Kharab, a winger-turned-left-half. Rani Rampal displayed commendable dribbling and shooting skills, and her tally of six goals against Thailand was the high noon of her performance.

The Indian team that finished runner-up in the Asia Cup.-

India put up a lovely show in its first meeting with China, sharing four goals. China’s ultimate triumph after a gap of two decades only confirmed its credentials as the hockey superpower in the region. After all, China is rated as World No. 3 and has a silver medal from the 2008 Olympics to boast of.

The team was focussed on qualifying for the World Cup and everything was programmed by the stalwart coach, Kim Sang Ryul, towards this end.

More than its renowned technical excellence, China had the players to carry out the strategies worked out for them.

Full-back and captain Ma Yibo came up with a few withering penalty corner hits when her team needed them the most, while the frontliners, Fu Rong, Song Ling, Jiao Jiao and Zhang Yu, shone in almost every game.

The manner in which South Korea demolished its rivals in the early part of the tournament portrayed it as an unbeatable side. Coach Kang Wook, a stalwart in the men’s team that figured in the final of the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, had really worked hard and trained players like Seul Ki Cheon into a strong drag flicker. Eun Sil Kim, Soo Kyung Lee and Mihyun Park were among the main scorers. But the team just caved in against the brilliance of the Indian attack although it made a gallant effort to recover in the last 10 minutes of the match. Eventually, Korea picked up the bronze medal, beating the defending champion, Japan, by the odd goal in seven.

For all the good work by Rika Komazova, Sato Masaka and Mie Nakashima, the Japanese crashed to a 0-1 defeat against China in the semifinal.

Among the rest, the display by Malaysia was heart-warming. Not only did it hold India to a 1-1 draw but also came close to making it to the semifinals. The squad, coached by Yahya Atan, projected a fine blend of aggression and finesse. Nadia Abdul Rehman, Julianai Muhammad Din and Sitirahmah Othman were the ones who impressed for Malaysia. Apart from the top four, Malaysia is the only team that has shown a good deal of improvement. The chasm between the top five and the rest was glaring as the scorelines of some of the matches clearly testified.

India’s Rani Rampal (centre) fights for the ball with China’s De Jiao Jiao (left) and Ma Yibo in the final. The Indian displayed commendable dribbling and shooting skills in the tournament.-

The quality of umpiring remained steady with a majority of the umpires showing appreciable grasp. A special mention must be made of Indian umpire Anupama Puchimanda of Karnataka who crossed the 50-game mark during the tournament. Her supervision in the semifinal between China and Japan was noteworthy. Indian umpires from this category need to be given greater opportunities.

The Hockey Association of Thailand conducted the competition with a great deal of professionalism and perfection. As the first time host of a huge event involving 11 countries, it braved many odds. Chaiyapak Siriwat and his wife Narumon ensured that everything worked smoothly. They, along with the Secretary, Petsuda, should be lauded for staging one of the best organised events in the continent.

On the final day, Sultan Azlan Shah, President, Asian Hockey Federation, gave away the trophy.