| India’s Deepak Thakur collides with Hong Kong goalkeeper Cheung Hin Kei during their Asian Games men’s hockey preliminary match in Busan on Monday. (AP/PTI)
Busan: The Indians took Hong Kong for granted and got a slap on the face. That was the story of the first session of their Asian Games hockey-opener at the Gangseo Stadium Monday morning.
Coach Rajinder Singh was left with no option but to fall back on his stars. They delivered and made life easier in the final 35 minutes.
The bottomline in the pool A tie was a 5-1 scoreline in India’s favour, but it was anything but a heart-warming start from a team with an eye on gold.
Against an opposition they have scored at an average of eight goals per match in their five previous Games meetings, the coach can’t be blamed for trying out irregular combinations.
Dhanraj Pillay and Jugraj Singh, two key men up front and behind, were on the bench as the game got underway at the pretty stadium next to two-tier, four-lane highways that is much part of Korea as traffic jams are to Calcutta.
The idyllic surroundings must have left a mark on the Indians. They got two goals through Gagan Ajit Singh and Daljit Singh Dhillon in the first 11 minutes, saw Kanwalpreet Singh scoop a penalty stroke over the post and then switched on the relaxation mode.
For the next 20 minutes, the four Ali brothers of Pakistani origin — Arif, Akbar, Asif and Asghar — and two Singhs — Jasbir and Satpal — toyed with the Indian defence where the young Kanwalpreet, Ignace Tirkey and the seasoned Dilip Tirkey had a harrowing time.
In a span of 13 minutes, India gave away five penalty corners — the very area they were found lacking in the Champions Trophy. Hong Kong narrowly missed scoring from the third, converted the fourth and had a ‘goal’ disallowed off the fifth. It looked a genuine strike and would have made it 2-2.
India accepted that lucky break and brought in Pillay and Jugraj in the very next minute. There was little time left on the clock for the first half to close, but the two stars made their presence felt straightaway.
Two minutes after change of ends, skipper Tirkey messed up a simple trapping and almost invited trouble. Thereafter, it was one-way traffic at the other end with the odd mistake in the Indian defence.
Gagan Ajit, who had a good match, and Pillay rattled the Hong Kong defence with their speed and skill. One of their several sorties resulted in a penalty corner. Dilip Tirkey’s hit found a defender’s body. Jugraj scooped in the resultant stroke with great poise.
The fourth goal was a beauty. Bimal Lakra capped his searing run down the left with a crisp cross which Gagan Ajit neatly diverted into the net.
Gagan Ajit would have got a third as well had a defender’s foot not come in the way of his stinging shot. Another penalty stroke, and another calm conversion by Jugraj.
The Indian coach didn’t sound too bothered by the patchy performance. “This is our first match and the boys took their time to settle down,” Rajinder said, adding that he wanted to give everyone a chance, which is why Pillay and Jugraj didn’t start.
Rajinder also mentioned the missed chances. “We should have scored at least ten goals,” he observed. But isn’t defence a cause for worry' “Considering it was our first match, I am satisfied.”
And what about the next opponents, Japan and Korea' “It’s too early to say, we’ll see how they play and then decide our strategy.”
Not very innovative thoughts, those. They should know enough about Korea and Japan to start planning already.