CHENNAI: The men's hockey team, for want of a better phrase, treated the ball like how anti-vaxxers treat the vaccine: not having it. The first 30 minutes of their semifinal against Japan at the Asian Champions Trophy on Tuesday was some of the worst hockey this group of players have ever played. They struggled to complete even sideways passes, there was zero cohesion and the defense parted like the Red Sea whenever Japan came at them.
After the match, skipper Manpreet Singh said they started the match 'slowly'. That was rather evident. Before the first two minutes was up, Japan, the 2018 Asian Games champions, had five penalty corners, one penalty stroke and two goals. At the other end, India, who had beaten the same opposition 6-0 48 hours ago, were left scratching their heads. Japan, though, were just getting started.
While Japan, who have had some money come into their hockey programme because of the Olympics, aren't technically at the same level as the elite, they more than make up for that in other areas: pace and counter. In Kenta Tanaka, one of the paciest players in the world today, they have one of the best forwards in Asia. Takuma Niwa is a glorious throwback to another era when players would just dribble out of any traffic and run. Both those players were on song and the Indian defence were frequently facing a tsunami.
They were helped in their cause by a poor performance by the Indians. The turnover rate was shocking — it looked like basketball and not hockey — and a failure to string chances hurt them. The only time they gained a degree of sustained control was with 10 minutes to go and Japan protecting a four-goal lead. India did manage to find two goals but the final scoreline of 5-3 did not flatter Seren Tanaka & Co. one bit.
One goal, Japan's fifth, summed up the first 30 minutes to a T.
India had the ball but dawdled on it. Japan were off in a flash with Niwa weaving his way in and out of Indian sticks like they were traffic cones. Five seconds later, Ryoma Ooka was celebrating after bundling home from close range. That India couldn't engineer a single penalty corner for two quarters was a fair reflection of how little they had the ball in Japan's third.
When they finally got it for Harmanpreet to score with seven minutes left on the clock, it was already too little, too late. Hardik Singh scored another set-piece goal but Japan were already celebrating.
With the actual match out of the way, time for some context. In a year where the men's team has shown what they can do with an Olympic bronze, this result really isn't worrying. Nevertheless, it could serve as that irritating 6.00 am alarm following a long night.
The management did not take a few of the seniors players to Dhaka, some others Dipsan Tirkey in defence and both goalkeepers (Suraj Karkera and KB Pathak) were given an opportunity to showcase their wares. In the context of world hockey, the Asian Champions Trophy will struggle to even make the footnote. There is no reward for winning it so there need not be any knee jerk reaction following the loss.
What they do in the upcoming big events in the next 13 months — Commonwealth Games, Asian Games and World Cup — will define them. This result (irrespective of what happens against Pakistan in the bronze-medal on Wednesday) will likely be forgotten quickly.