Not too often does one see an Indian hockey team rise to the occasion. Not in recent memory has an Indian team soaked up so much pressure as they did on Monday, getting past Korea 3-2 in their Asia Cup league match in Chennai.
It was expected to be a thriller, and the almost houseful crowd at the Mayor Radhakrishnan Stadium here got its share of excitement as the hosts put up a brilliant all-round show, completely dominating the Asian champions.
The Koreans are known for their fast counter-attacks and accurate penalty corner conversions, and the Indians made sure both their strengths were negated. The win confirmed India's place in the last four, unless they lose to the two minnows, Thailand and Bangladesh.
India started attacking right from the start and the reward was almost immediate as they earned two penalty-corners within the first five minutes, though were wasted. The first half was an end-to-end affair with all five goals coming before the break.
Though the Koreans were visibly feeling the pressure as the vociferous, almost 8000 strong crowd rooted for the hosts with drums, whistles and the paraphernalia, they took the lead when their penalty corner expert Jang Hyun Jong slammed the ball home in the ninth minute.
Korea got five PCs but the Indian defence thwarted them all. And the strikers kept up the pressure so much so that the ball stayed inside the Korean half for a major part.
And experienced Dilip Tirkey was the fulcrum around which the team appeared to rally. A free hit by Dilip earned India's third PC, the Korean goalkeeper made a brilliant save but gave away a long corner. Dilip's hit was deflected in by Shivendra Singh to level the score.
Another hit by captain Prabodh Tirkey was defected in by Ignace Tirkey for the second goal, and a Bimal Lakra cross was beautifully converted by Prabhjot Singh.
The second half was a completely Indian affair, except for the last few minutes when the Koreans went all out for the equalizer. But for a host of muffed up opportunities upfront, the margin of victory might have been much higher for India.
But, to their credit, the Indians managed to keep pace with the Koreans, giving them no space to run amok.
In an earlier match, Pakistan slammed in eight goals against Singapore to assure themselves a semifinal spot. In the other matches, China overwhelmed Thailand 13-0, while Bangladesh beat a resolute Sri Lanka 3-2 in the first match of the day.
No carrot, no stick
A day after reports that the IHF had announced a reward of Rs 1000 for every goal — and a penalty of Rs 2000 for every goal conceded — IHF secretary K Jothikumaran rejected the claims. "I have no idea about any such thing. Where have you read the reports?" he asked, when asked for confirmation about the offer.
"A reward for scoring may sound logical but a penalty for conceding them? That makes no sense. I don't know of any such offer," he insisted.
Pool A: Hong Kong vs Singapore, Pakistan Japan vs Malaysia;
Pool B: India vs Bangladesh.