Victory for Korea, glory for India

Captain Sardar Singh, here seen tackling South Korea's Lee Nam-yong in the final, was the fulcrum of India's display.-AP

It was a case of so near and yet so far for India. The silver lining, however, is that this outcome brought the team to the threshold of World Cup qualification. By S. Thyagarajan.

A victory in the Asia Cup would have opened a new vista for Indian hockey. And it almost came to fruition in the final where India performed with outstanding fortitude before perishing against Korea. The 3-4 result — the first defeat for the team in the competition — mirrors how lady luck deserted the team in the final minutes.

This narration is from India’s perspective. It was a case of so near and yet so far.

The silver lining, however, is that this outcome brought the team to the threshold of World Cup qualification.

The events preceding the Asia Cup have to be recounted to understand the gravity of the situation.

A pathetic performance in the World League semi-finals put a question mark on the team’s qualification for the World Cup. The contretemps arising from the change of coach — Australian Michael Nobbs being replaced by Roelant Oltmans of the Netherlands — prompted a heated debate. So too was the re-induction of M. K. Kaushik, who has come in as assistant coach.

As if these were not enough, a handful of strikers were injured rendering them unfit for selection.

The selectors picked a loose combination, which was imbalanced in more than one layer. Oltmans was unperturbed. He believed in making use of the available talent. And he succeeded to the hilt in injecting an element of confidence into the team.

As India marched ahead beating Oman in the opening match, the real test came against the defending champion, Korea. The 2-0 victory set the course for the team.

What really stood out for India was the inspiring work of its defenders.

Goalkeeper Sreejesh was outstanding throughout. He is now trained by the South African goalkeeper Dave Staniforth. He was superb while making some of the saves against Korea and Malaysia in the semi-finals. None deserved the best goalkeeper award than this gallant warrior.

The fulcrum of India’s display was its skipper Sardar Singh. Never was he seen flinching away a tackle or putting the stick wrong. His value to the team is immeasurable.

Next was the trio of V. R. Raghunath, Rupinderpal Singh and Birendra Lakra — all seasoned campaigners. While Raghunath and Rupinderpal slammed goals with panache from penalty corners, Lakra was vigilant in the backline cutting forays with nonchalance.

Among the younger crop, Kothajit Singh showed marked improvement. He gave a helping hand to Sardar Singh as did Manpreet and Dharamvir.

The frontline, where the 18-year-old Manpreet Singh sparkled now and then, was however inconsistent.

Korea entered the fray riding on the confidence stemming from its confirmed entry into the World Cup. But the aim was clear; to retain the trophy. The players worked towards that till the end despite the defeat against India, earlier in the championship.

Aggressive, adept and athletic, the Koreans displayed the brand of hockey they are known for. Few have perfected the art of penalty corner conversion as the Koreans.

Jing Jong symbolises this and he is literally a game changer. Lee Nam Yong and Kang Moon spearheaded the attack with distinction and played a remarkable role in the trophy triumph when it mattered most. The team had the benefit of technical assistance from the scholarly German coach, Paul Lissek.

Tragic was the case of Pakistan. The team needed a victory in the Asia Cup, to make it to the World Cup at The Hague. Talented though in all aspects, it was desperate to hit the top of the podium. There was no early suggestion that it will go without accomplishing that.

In fact, the Pakistanis outclassed Malaysia twice in the event. But they met their Waterloo against Korea and were shunted out of the World Cup for the first time in 42 years.

The team management was at a loss to bear this disappointment. Akhtar Rasool was speechless so was the PHA President, Qasim Zia. Tahir Zaman, the coach, said philosophically, “It is sad news for Pakistan. We have to live with this reality.” A bronze medal was hardly a consolation to the once mighty power.

For Irfan Muhammad it was a personal disaster as captain. He did his best in that role and in the conversion of penalty corners. The youngster like Shafqat Rasool and Haseem Khan functioned efficiently as did the seasoned Shakeel Abbasi and Waseem Ahmed. Recalling the retired goalkeeper Salman Akbar did not pay dividends.

For Malaysia, the event was a big blow. Assured of a berth in the World Cup, the home team was confident of winning the cup but tumbled out without a medal.

The players believed that this was their best chance. Goals by Faisal Saari, Muhammad Razie (penalty corners) and Aslan Misron had a touch of class but the team caved in against Pakistan, twice (including the bronze medal contest) and then to India. The pre-event media hype about Malaysia’s chances went up in smoke.

Among the others, Oman showed promise on its maiden outing. Japan was a big disappointment. So was Bangladesh. Debutant Chinese Taipei created a good impression demonstrating the tenets of pattern weaving and finish.

In more ways than one, the ninth edition at Ipoh turned out to be an important tournament.