NEW DELHI:Penalty shootouts have an eerie stillness about them, like when two gnarled pugilists brace for the knockout punch. The protagonist and antagonist exchange sizing-up stares. Or sometimes they completely avoid eye contact. It’s actually not even 30 seconds before the striker marks his guard and begins his run. But it seems an eternity.
Kneeling down and breathing heavily, he starts his measured dribble. His mind must be running over the drills time and time again. The goalkeeper sneers and sniggers. A sidewalk-salsa routine, settling nerves or customary mannerism as do batsmen farm the strip even in these days of covered pitches. But his eyes from beneath the giant helmet are perpetually tracking the ball.
As the striker rushes forward, the goalkeeper takes decisive steps out of his cage. Here is a moment even a team sport melts into an individual pursuit.
The dribble-and-hit pattern in hockey had taken some inherent cruelty out of the routine shootouts. No more are goalkeepers and penalty-spillers painter villains. More importantly, it had made shootouts more enterprising; it’s more a test of the skill and calm than a mere lottery as it had been for years.
And both Ranchi Rays and Uttar Pradesh Wizards oozed gallons of these virtues in the dramatic shootout that eventually resulted in Rays prevailing over Uttar Pradesh Wizards 9-8, surreal even by the conventional method. Not that the goalkeepers Lovell Tyler and George Bazeley were inept, they did make some dazzling saves, but the strikers had upgraded their finishing skills by a few notches.
Ironically, that was the only phase of the match came close to being a thriller. In the regulation 60 minutes, both sides were expectedly cautious and a tad cagey. Ranchi were doubtlessly the more vibrant side, but found themselves trailing by the 34th minute when Uttar Pradesh seized the lead through VR Raghunath. But seven minutes later, Ashley Jackson restored parity, courtesy a penalty stroke.
Gaining in confidence, they switched gears and hatched chances, only to spurn those opportunities with a sort of regularity that cast aspersion on them reclaiming the title.
Bizarrely, Jackson, the highest goal-scorer in the tournament, squandered as many as six penalty corners. One of his more mortal days, surely.
Contrastingly, their opponents in the final Jaypee Warriors Punjab demonstrated how efficiently a team can be worked over, en route their blanking of Delhi (2-0), a scoreline that hardly reflects Punjab’s superiority. Sandeep Singh gave them lead in the fourth minute before Agustian Mazzilli’s stunning reverse hit enhanced the margin. Going by Punjab’s all-round effervescence, HIL seems destined to usher in a new champion on Sunday.