INDIA OVERCAME their finishing glitches, wayward shots, a stubborn opposition playing rough and some terrible umpiring to win the four-nation Lal Bahadur Shastri memorial hockey tournament by a lone goal against Azerbaijan at the Shivaji Stadium here on Wednesday.
India began the way they have been doing throughout the tournament, going on the attack from the start. And, after playing together for three games in a row, the forwards finally appeared to be finding their rhythm. The efforts were apparent, and chief coach GS Bhangu's repeated refrain of "trying out new players to increase bench strength" seemed to be working. India got their first chance in the 10th minute itself, with Subhadra Pradhan sending the ball wide off skipper Mamta Kharab's pass from the right.
However, while India did miss a couple of sitters that could have put them ahead early on, they were not helped by some terrible umpiring, especially by Malaysia's Anna Thomas. Two clear infringements by Azerbaijan within 10 minutes should have resulted in penalty strokes but the central-Asian team was let off.
In the 18th minute, Kharab's pass into the striking circle rolled past the goalline unattended as Saba Anjum was pulled back by the opposition goalkeeper, but the umpire took no action.
In the 26th minute, the goalkeeper blocked India's second penalty corner shot by sitting on it, but again umpire Thomas continued the game for what should have been a penalty stroke. Emboldened by the decisions, Azerbaijan increased their rough play and, it is to India's credit that they did not get provoked into retaliating, which could have earned them a warning.
The second half was equally action-packed and the Indians proved a point by upping the tempo of their game. The Saba-Mamta combination kept penetrating the opposition striking circle, creating chances. Saba finally deflected the winner off a Mamta pass after Suman Bala's penalty corner shot in the 52nd minute.
That was when perhaps all their pent-up frustration came to the fore as the Indians gave vent to their emotions for the first time in the match. Shouting, screaming and waving a couple of sticks at the opposition, the Indian girls had made their point, without getting involved in verbal exchanges.
Saba was declared the player of the tournament and awarded Rs 5,000. "It was tough since we missed players like Surinder Kaur, Jasjeet Kaur and Jyoti Sunita Kullu," Saba said after the match. "We have been playing together for almost 6-8 years, while with the new players, we have been practicing for only about a year, that too mainly in camps," she added.
Asked about the umpiring, Saba refused to say anything but did admit that things were tough. "We cannot protest much because then we can be carded. Especially for someone like me, who has a short temper," she laughed. But they did keep their tempers in check, and had the last laugh.
However, in an FIH-approved tournament in India, the poor standard of umpiring, especially in the final, and that too against the hosts, doesn't reflect well on the organisers.
In the match for third spot, Italy overcame a fighting Malaysia by a solitary goal in the extra time after the teams were locked goalless after regulation time. Julieta Obrist slammed home the winner in the 75th minute.