Before time erodes memory and impressions fade away, lets revisit what coach Harendra Singh said when he was asked about India’s chances of winning a week before the Junior World Cup – “Even if I don’t go to Lucknow and coach the team by remote, India will win it.” Well, on Sunday, in front of a packed Major Dhyan Chand Stadium, India showed just why Harendra’s confidence on the team was sky high as they outclassed Belgium 2-1 in the final of the Junior Hockey World Cup. India’s tactical sharpness caught the ambitious Belgians unawares as they lifted the coveted trophy after 15 years.
The Indian juniors played as if they had gulped a gallon of jet fuel. History might soft-brush the result to coming generations when they read Belgium lost 1-2. But truth be told, India could easily have scored four more. A flying start with two goals in the first 22 minutes destroyed Belgium – Gurjant Singh and Simranjeet Singh, scoring of super reverse hits. Belgium’s reply was not only late, it was an anti-climax. Even the clock had stopped.
The pace in the first ten minutes was frenetic. The pitch resembled a bunch of sprinters, wearing blue, holding hockey sticks. Normally, it’s the Belgians who like to set the pace. But India, after the initial short burst of energy by Belgium, simply dominated and stunned the Red Lions. Varun Kumar, Parvinder Singh and Gurjant tested the Belgian defence. It was obvious that the pace was a little too hot for Belgium.
If there has been a weakness in this Indian side, it has been the penalty corner conversions. India had two in the first seven minutes and both weren’t hit cleanly. At that moment, one wondered if these were expensive mistakes. But in the eighth minute came the move that stunned the Belgians. A scoop from India’s deep defence saw it arc into the Belgian striking circle and the goalkeeper Loic van Doren, who was brilliant in the semi-final, ironically made a massive error, an expensive one. Charging out to deflect it away, he simply pushed it into the path of Gurjant who neatly picked it up and without dropping pace, turned into the striking circle and let loose a reverse hit that bisected van Doren and another defender to speed into goal. Belgium was stunned. From that moment onwards, Belgium knew they couldn’t take chances in the midfield and leave any space.
Meanwhile, in deep defence, Harmanpreet Singh was imperious. There has never been any doubt about his talent but against Belgium he showed why India’s defence is in good hands till the next Olympics. He was calm, composed and moved up on the right flank, popping up in the Belgian striking circle on quite a few occasions. If there was a flaw, it was the penalty corner drill. India’s dominance was so complete that they had eight circle entries in the first ten minutes.
Belgium did try and kill the pace and partly succeeded too. Around the 15th minute of the first half, there were enough rotations from both the sides. The game was confined to the midfield as both teams moved men behind the ball. Risks were eliminated. Show-boating in terms of skills wasn’t seen. All the flaws seen in the match against Australia had been ironed out. In place was a team that was hell bent on playing professional hockey. Before the final, Harendra Singh had said, “I learnt from mistakes in the 2005 World Cup and many other tournaments. I tried to play attacking hockey even when I knew I could defend. I realized that goals do look good but a victory by a goal or many goals gives you three points only.”
When Harjeet played slightly deeper, Simranjeet Singh took his place. The move in the 22nd minute came off Santa Singh. Nilakanta Sharma who could have been on the scorers list, pushed the ball for Simranjeet who from slightly inside the striking circle smashed in a reverse shot to beat Belgian goalkeeper van Doren. At 2-0, Belgium had a mountain to climb. And they had the skills too. But India was not in a benevolent mood. To the frustration of the Belgians, India wasn’t willing to risk the match with any stupid moves. Finally, the Europeans had a penalty corner with five minutes left in the first half but a deflection from Gregory Stockbroekx missed the target.
The second half was more of a test for India than for Belgium. India needed to show whether they had the steel to last 35 minutes in front of their home crowd. Ten years back, Harendra’s junior side had led 2-0 against Australia in the 2005 semi-final but then threw it away to eventually lose 2-3. This was a different Harendra who stood at the Major Dhyan Chand Stadium screaming at his players to keep composure and structure. Harjeet who had a good outing didn’t venture up too much unless there was support. Once the ball was lost, he ran back shouldering the responsibility of putting men at the back.
Quentin van Lierde was offered an opportunity on a platter but he fumbled allowing the Indian goalkeeper Vikas Dahiya to clear the ball. It was one of those rare moments when the Indian defence dozed off a bit. Just as the match reached the halfway mark in the second half, Gurjant got the golden opportunity of running away with the ball and only van Doren in front but he couldn’t control the ball. India had two penalty corners taking their match tally to five but yet again, unsurprisingly, couldn’t create indirect conversions. India’s attempt at closing the gates permanently wasn’t happening that easily. Meanwhile, Henri Raes blazed over from close; it was the closest Belgium would come to scoring from a field attempt. As minutes ticked away, India pulled down the shutters. The restless crowd cheered on every second knowing that the Indians would hold on.
But like a good movie with a twist, Belgium got a penalty corner with 24 seconds remaining on the clock. By the time they took the penalty corner, the clock had expired. Yet they had a second consecutive penalty corner and this time Fabrice van Bockrijck’s flick hit the inside of the post before going in for a consolation goal.
Fifteen years ago Gagan Ajit Singh’s team lifted the World Cup in Hobart. And now Harjeet Singh and his boys stood on the podium on a cold evening in Lucknow enjoying the feeling of finally embossing their names into hockey history.
First Published On : Dec 19, 2016 10:08 IST