JAKARTA: Indian men’s ignominious hockey campaign ended with a touch of varnish on Saturday, as they beat Pakistan to pick up bronze. Hockey encounters between the two rivals are steeped in history, but they have lacked the lustre of old in recent years. This has partly been down to two reasons. While both teams are not the force they once were, India’s regional dominance — their performance in Jakarta notwithstanding — extended to periodically handing the Green Shirts heavy defeats.
No statistic illustrates this better than this one: in the last 10 matches between the two nations (not counting the South Asian Games in 2016), India had won eight and drawn two.
Considering the lopsided nature of this rivalry, the hatred — which was at its absolute peak at the 2014 Champions Trophy in Bhubaneswar — has died down. It was in this backdrop that the 3rd/4th match was played; a sentence that not many had expected to be written when India and Pakistan were drawn to face Malaysia and Japan in the semis.
The 11th match since that infamous night in Bhubaneswar ended on expected lines: Indian smiles amidst Pakistani dejection. The match itself was a mistake-riddled affair, with both teams preferring to highlight the reasons behind their struggled in the semifinals.
India were careless in possession at times and could not capitalise on the number of promising moves their midfield engineered. Roelant Oltmans’ men, meanwhile, finally saw a lot more of the ball after being starved of it in the first two quarters, but failed to make enough headway with it. Pakistan routinely messed up counter-attacking moves and their forwards couldn’t drag their Indian markers away from their comfort zone. The only aspect in which both teams excelled was at the back. Pakistan conceded only two penalty corners, while India conceded three.
It was India’s first penalty corner, which came in the 50th minute, that decided the match. Harmanpreet Singh’s fierce low drive into the bottom corner gave the Men in Blue a 2-1 win after Akashdeep Singh had given the lead through a field goal in the 3rd minute. Muhammad Atiq had halved the deficit through another field goal in the 52nd minute, but the World No 5 held their posts.
India coach Harendra Singh said that his side will go back satisfied with their performances. “This wasn’t the medal for which we came here. But something is better than nothing, and we are happy that we are not going back empty-handed. We fought each and every moment of the game for this. Playing against Pakistan has always been motivational, and I am happy that we could maintain our record against them.”
Two bad performances from Pakistan have already sent the rumour mill into overdrive, but skipper Muhammed Rizwan Sr appealed for some perspective.
“There should not be any chopping and changing on the basis of this result. It is my humble request to the federation.” Even coach Oltmans is said to not be safe from the axe, and Rizwan hoped that they would have the services of their coach for the World Cup in India. “We all want him to stay so that we can have a strong team for the World Cup.”
Amusingly, Rizwan said that Pakistan had improved as a side as they had “only lost 1-2”. “Earlier, India would beat us 4-0, 5-0. But we gave them a tough time today. At the Champions Trophy (India beat Pakistan 4-0 in June) they played exceptionally well, but we matched them here.”
How a once-great rivalry has fallen down the pecking order.