Sultan Azlan Shah Cup - Sreejesh and defence give India a memorable win against Pakistan
India came up with a solid defensive display in their 3rd match at Sultan Azlan Shah Cup as they beat arch-rivals Pakistan for the 52nd time in their history.
India’s goalkeeper PR Sreejesh had already put on a scintillating display before the match but his performance between the sticks today will be remembered for a long time to come as India beat Pakistan 3-1.
The first half started at a frentic pace with India and Pakistan having a go at both the ends. It was Pakistan who drew first blood when a 5th minute Penalty Corner was converted by them. Pakistan’s variation saw Mohammad Imran push the ball to Muhammad Waqas who deflected in the shot to score the first goal of the match. But the very next minute, India responded with a PC, with Rupinder Pal Singh, who came under criticism for his inconsistent display, scoring off his first chance even as he slipped while taking the drag-flick.
The initial minutes continued to go past at immense pace as Pakistan tried to get the lead again. Sreejesh had let one in, but for the remainder of the match, the goalkeeper from Kerala remained a final frontier which Pakistan failed to conquer even after repeated attempts. In the 9th minute, India’s attack from the right found Nithin Thimmaiah deflecting a shot straight at the goalkeeper Imran Butt. Imran did well to stop it but the rebound was lapped up brilliantly by Akashdeep Singh who showed great skill in hitting it past the Pakistani goalkeeper. Within 10 minutes of the start, 3 goals were scored and India found themselves ahead 2-1.
Mohammad Imran Junior got a chance to score the equaliser a couple of minutes later as he had a clear shot at goal but taking his eyes off the ball, he missed the shot and a golden chance for Pakistan. After a breathless start to the game, both the teams settled down and from that moment forward, it was a display of solid defensive hockey from both teams. India specially kept Pakistan’s attack in check as Harbir Singh, Rupinder Pal Singh and PR Sreejesh put their bodies on the line and didn’t let Pakistan score.
Sreejesh was involved for much of the game as he made some one-handed and diving saves with ease. Mandeep Singh missed a couple of chances as he slipped on one occasion and missed an audacious flick between the legs, but kept the pressure on Pakistan. At the half hour mark, India kept their lead at 2-1. The circle penetrations were 9-7 in favour of India and in terms of shots on goal, Pakistan led 4-3. The numbers showed the solid defensive play that was adopted by both the teams. India had however converted their only Penalty Corner so far in the match, as Pakistan had a conversion of 1/4 to show at half-time.
The second half started with the crowd very quiet in comparison to the start of the match as both the sides played absorbing end-to-end hockey. In the 56th minute of the match however, Mandeep Singh finally reaped reward for his continuous forays forward. A pass from Dharamvir found Mandeep in front of the goal with only the goalkeeper Imran Butt to beat. Though his first flick was saved by Imran, the deflection was hit into the back of the net by the Hockey India League hero as the celebrations started in the Indian camp.
Pakistan continued to attack but tiring legs were now visibly affecting their game. PR Sreejesh was however as alert as possible as he saved a PC twice by blocking with his body. Yet another Penalty Corner was missed by Pakistan when in the dying minutes, Mohammad Imran shot wide of the goal, having finally beaten Sreejesh with pace. It was said many a times before the match by analysts that the failure to convert the chances would be the cause of downfall for either side and Pakistan were the living example of the fact as they could only convert 1 out 8 Penalty Corners which they were awarded in the match. India latched onto their only chance as they converted their 1st and only Penalty Corner in the match.
With this win, India jumped up to the 4th position in the table, ahead of Pakistan in terms of goal difference. PR Sreejesh was undoubtedly the star of the match. He’s developing into a great match winner for India as his performances in this tournament have been nothing short of spectacular. It was also great to see under fire Rupinder Pal Singh and Harbir Singh come to the fore and show commitment and perform for the team’s cause.
India Pakistan matches are always memorable and Sultan Azlan Shah has a history of throwing up thrilling clashes between the arch-rivals. Last year’s match was an absolute cracker and India went on to win the Bronze medal in the tournament. If this performance is anything to go by, Indian fans can expect much better results from this team in the coming matches of the tournament.
India [Rupinder Pal Singh (6th), Akashdeep Singh (9th) and Mandeep Singh (56th)] beat Pakistan [Muhammad Waqas (5th)]
India will face New Zealand next on 14th March.