After a not-so-auspicious start to their 11th Asia Cup campaign, the Indian men’s hockey team wore a transformed look in the Super 4s stage at GBK Stadium in Jakarta. The Birendra Lakra-captained Indian outfit stuck to a disciplined structure and did not allow Japan to unleash free-flowing hockey they are known for. Individual brilliance in hockey is always a joy to watch, and against Japan Manjit provided that, drawing first blood for India. Darting down the baseline, the youngster showed eye-catching 3D skills to wrong-foot the Japanese defence before slotting it past Japanese goalkeeper Takashi Yoshikawa.
India did wrest the early initiative with that goal, but Japan roared back into the contest in the second quarter when Takuma Niwa pounched on a shortie rebound after Indian goalkeeper Suraj Karkera had parried away the drag-flick from Ken Nagayoshi.
The most heartening feature of the young Indian side was the way they controlled the midfield – the team was prepared to thrown their bodies in the line and not give their opponents open spaces to manoeuvre. Japan looked a pale shadow of the team that beat India 5-2 in the pool phase and was under the cosh against a much-improved side.
The young turks in the Indian forwardline was able to lift their game by a few notches, which augurs well for the future. The trio of Uttam Singh, Maninder Singh, and Pawan Rajbhar showed they are ready for the big stage. For the second time in the match, it was indivdual brilliance that triggered India’s second goal – the eventual match-clincher. Uttam Singh produced a superb run from the baseline and fed Pawan Rajbhar, who slammed the ball to ensure India had their noses in front. The unselfish move from the Uttar Pradesh youngster came to the fore when he himself could have taken a crack at the Japan goal.
The dying moments were pretty anxious for India, but they stationed more men in defence, even most of their forwards, to nullify the possibility of last-minute shocks from Japan. India are on top of the tree in the Super 4s with South Korea and Malaysia playing out a 2-2 draw. India would look to build on this win when they feature against Malaysia in their second match.