Sultan of Johor Cup: Young Indians impress but fail to clear final hurdle
It was a story of two halves at Johor Bahru, as the Indians dominated the first two quarters and pinned the British boys back in their own territory with some outstanding skill up front but seemed to lose the plot for a while after Jon Bleby's chargers scored their second goal midway through the third quarter.
Gursahibjit's opening goal as early as the fourth minute was reminiscent of Akashdeep's scorching tomahawks and the Indian colts were off with a canter but Daniel West restored parity just three minutes later.
The Indians had as many as 8 circle penetrations in the first ten minutes but the Brits had the equalizer which was all that mattered.
The numbers at the end of the first half were flattering for Mandeep Mor and co. as they enjoyed 64% of the possession and made themselves at home in the British circle with 14 entries but were ruthlessly inhospitable when it came to extending the same courtesy to their adversaries.
The Brits had just 8 circle penetrations and seemed well and truly outdone by the skill and speed of the Indians and resorted to using their superior physique as best as they could to offset the waves of attacks. The Indians could well have taken the lead towards the end of the second quarter, doing most things right but failing to get the ball into the net.
Shilanand Lakra, who had scored against the English on his senior international debut in the Azlan Shah Cup in March, narrowly missed the target at the end of the first half as did a few of his teammates before and after.
The lapses proved costly and the Brits who seemed more purposeful following the long breather scored against the run of play. Dazed by James Oates' strike in the 39th minute, the Indian defence fell apart and allowed the Canterbury lad to score another in the 42nd which effectively sealed the deal for the 2017 silver medalists.
Jude Felix's side got their act together late in the final quarter as Abhishek scored a peach of a goal with a strong reverse hit from the edge of the circle and the Indians almost found an equalizer soon after, but the ball sailed over the crossbar much to the dismay of their fans and supporters.
The 2017 edition of the tournament witnessed two young prodigies - Dilpreet Singh and Vivek Sagar come to the fore who are now an integral part of the senior squad.
Mandeep Mor and Shilanand Lakra have played at the senior level while a few others saw action at Belgium but several members of the team made their international debut in the tournament which is a phenomenal indication of the amount of talent available.
In stark contrast, the Brits were bolstered by ten members of the team that won the silver last year.
Reacting to the loss, former India goalkeeper Ashish Ballal told Sportskeeda that while he lamented the fact that the juniors had flattered to deceive much like their senior counterparts had (in the Asian Games), he hoped that coach Jude Felix would not be pulled up for the defeat like Harendra Singh was.
Before the hue and cry for a sports psychologist for the juniors gains momentum, just a reminder that the Indians lost their last round-robin pool match to Great Britain by an identical margin so the loss was not necessarily a result of big-match jitters - not to mention the fact that the Indians lost to the British by a 1-2 margin last year as well.
Players like Gursahibjit, Abhishek, Shilanand, and Mandeep Mor (to name a few) dazzled on the pitch to earn their side a creditable silver medal but more importantly, the coming of age of the juniors and the abundance of talent in the ranks does augur well for the future of Indian hockey.