As the series of events unfolded, Indian men’s hockey team finished its campaign in the 27th Sultan Azlan Shah Cup in the fifth position. India managed to pull up an authoritative performance to hold Ireland 4-1 in the consolatory 5th/6th place encounter.
The tournament, which India had vied to end with a podium finish, culminated in a debacle with just two wins out of six matches, coming against Malaysia and Ireland. The win against Ireland allowed India to avenge their 2-3 loss against the same opponents in the last round robin match on Friday.
India had its team rejigged as an experimental step to find out the players’ potentials ahead of an eventful 2018 that has Commonwealth Games, Asian Games, and the coveted World Cup lined up. India started off its campaign in the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup this year with a closely-fought defeat against Argentina, followed by a draw with England. However, before it met Ireland in round robin, India could have just made the case that they had played poor hockey for just one quarter in this tournament – the third quarter against Australia where they conceded three goals, playing with ten men for the most part.
But a match against Ireland, which ranks 10th in world hockey, four places below India, blatantly exposed how India had run out of focus. A win against Ireland, the team that had lost all its previous matches in the tournament, could have given the men in blue a chance to vent the pressure on both Malaysia and England in the next game. With England thrashing Malaysia 7-2 in the final group match, India would not have finished in the top two – but a win against Ireland, after an impressive victory over Malaysia, would have at least kept them in medal contention.
Inarguably, India displayed a sloppy performance by throwing their leads twice to lose against a gritty Irish team.
After Ramandeep Singh gave India an early lead, Ireland got on the scoresheet from a free hit down India’s left flank. The quick cross-field passes of the opposition found the Indian defence clueless, so much so that it didn’t even mark Ireland’s finest striker Shane O’Donoghue who found the back of the net with a scorching shot missed by goalkeeper Suraj Karkera.
Amit Rohidas, who has the experience of playing in the HWL Finals was expected to hold the ball. But he appeared rushing into things. Varun Kumar and Dipsan Tirkey also started to crumble into the middle of the second quarter. Only Nilam Xess showed some nerve, who was trying to overlap.
India had regained the lead at half-time with a scoreline 2-1. A sensible option at this point would have been tightening the defence in the next half. However, the structure started looking shaky and suddenly the forwards began to rely mainly on long balls instead of passing through the midfield.
The third quarter of the match saw India play the worst hockey of their tournament. Conceding three to Australia in 15 minutes could have been still excused because of inexperience. The two goals it conceded to Ireland in the third quarter were outright sloppy.
After posting the third goal, Ireland simply defended their posts with grit and managed to hold India. India’s attacking play in the fourth quarter lacked depth and the players looked utterly tired, without any particular strategy.
Apart from the discussing point about inexperience, the performance against Ireland was not befitting that of a team of India’s stature. Though India avenged this defeat to win the fifth position in the tournament, Sardar Singh and his men would have been in contention for the bronze medal on Saturday had it not given away the match on Friday.
The performance in the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup lowers team India’s morale ahead of a crucial Commonwealth Games fixture which starts in a month’s time.