After defeating China 7-1 in their Women’s FIH Pro League debut, Indian head coach Janneke Schopman on Tuesday might have expected a similar show from the Indian hockey team. But the outfit led by Savita Punia barely managed to scrape China’s 14th place 2-1, thanks to a brace from Player of the Year, drag-flicker Gurjit Kaur.
After being given the chance to play hockey at the top after Australia and New Zealand withdrew last year due to Covid-19 related travel restrictions, the nine-team tournament offers a brilliant opportunity for India to increase its banking strength try, get playing time and Much needed exposure against high quality opposition, something the team has been missing for the last two years in the world of pandemics. This is particularly important for the World Cup in July, which will be held in Spain and the Netherlands.
While Monday’s game was all about domination at the Sultan Qaboos Sports Complex in Muscat – with six Indians getting their names on the scoreboard, Tuesday was all about wasted opportunities.
Clearly the better team on the field, India had 53% ball possession, made 33 circular penetrations to the seven of China, seven penalty corners to China none but could only attempt six shots on goal, allowing only two conversions. India’s game lived more on long balls than on push-pass play, as the defense moved the midfield forward. It did the job against a team like China, but it’s an unworkable strategy against higher ranking teams ahead in the competition.
“We are currently working on defining our style of play as the Indian women’s team,” Schopman said last month. “That means a lot of movement on and off the ball and that people participate in the attack because we want to play fast and offensive hockey. We want to use our skills and speed well.”
Schopman’s vision was not taken for granted.
World No.9 India opened the gates when Gurjit put India on the board in the third minute in the first penalty corner of the match. At the time, it looked like the second game against China would be a repeat of Monday. India remained tight, creating many chances, but ruined them by hitting wide or blocked by the Chinese defense.
Time at the start, the team led by Wanli Tang became more clinical and increased their possession in the second quarter and came out of an all-out attack in the third, resulting in the leveling of Shumin Wang (39th), beautiful India.
In desperate need of the winner, India stepped up, pressed hard and the midfield also came to life in the second half, which eventually gave India a heap of penalty kicks in the final quarter. Deep Grace Ekka hit wide a few times, but Gurjit was again on the verge of putting India back in the lead in the 49th.
India retained ball possession in the last few minutes, and wasted time until the final hooter. This was India’s third consecutive victory against China after defeating them 2-0 in the bronze medal playoffs at the Asia Cup last week.
Even though it’s early days, the two successful victories have placed India at the top of the Pro League standings with six points. The team will face their real test when they take on the winners of the previous two editions, world number 1 and reigning world and Olympic champion Netherlands on 19 and 20 February in Bhubaneswar.
The matches are followed by matches against world no. 6 Spain at the same place on 26 and 27 February.