The talk in the press enclosure at the Seonhak Hockey Stadium on Thursday revolved around the new 60-minute format and how India would have the upperhand against Pakistan.
The changed format didn’t change the fortunes of India, which paid the price for shoddy defence, losing 1-2 against a Pakistan team that had been starved for exposure coming into the Asian Games. Nippy strikers Umar Bhutta and Muhammad Waqas soundly beat custodian PR Sreejesh in a clash that had been labelled by Pakistan coach Shahnaz Sheikh on Wednesday as the final. Pakistan lead Group B with three wins and India are second with two wins and a loss.
There was no shortage of Pakistani flags, one could see hundreds of them all around while no Tricolour fluttered. And the energy built by their fans was the driving force for the team marking a return to international hockey after prolonged break.
Some said Pakistan would be underprepared, others concurred that they would be a disjointed lot considering a lot has been happening in the volatile Pakistan Hockey Federation. But, the team that looked disjointed was India.
Pakistan’s strategy revolved around a sound defence and quick counter-attacks and they paid rich dividends as the Indian defenders were caught out by the speed at which the rival strikers moved up from their own half.
It was two defensive lapses for which India paid a heavy price after Bhutta and Waqas scored past Sreejesh.
Bhutta was first on target in the 38th minute in a goalmouth scrimmage, flicking past the goalkeeper from close range. India equalised in the 53rd minute through Nikkin Thimmiah, who capitalised on a cross from Kothajit Singh on the left.
But within a minute, Pakistan were in front again, off their second raid in the space of 45 seconds, capitalising on openings created through brisk counter-attacks.
With India’s defence out of position as they mounted raids to press for another goal --- India looked to overcome Pakistan’s goal advantage --- Pakistan twice surged to the Indian circle in the 54th minute. Goalkeeper Sreejesh first blocked a deflection by Abdul Haseem Khan and India built another attack.
After the ball went from end to end twice, Pakistan found the match-winner through Waqas, who scored on second attempt, depositing the ball in the right corner of the goal.
India coach, Terry Walsh said during the post-match briefing that Pakistan played defensive in the first two quarters, but the way they posed an early danger with their only penalty corner told a different story, with Muhammad Imran’s drag-flick going wide.
The first glimpse of India’s lackadaisical defence came in the 10th minute when Sreejesh padded a cross from Waqas, but the defenders were slow in clearing.
India captain Sardar Singh had to mostly play a defensive role with the centre-half position taken up by Manpreeet Singh.
India’s next major test will come from China, who upset the formbook at the 2006 Doha Asian Games, defeating the two-time continental champions.