It was double delight for India at the Asia Cup hockey championship here on Friday. First, Korea threw open a window for India to secure its spot at the next World Cup by shunting Pakistan out with a 2-1 semifinal victory. Then, perhaps spurred on by the turn of events, India prevailed 2-0 over Malaysia in the other semifinal.
However, unless it wins the cup here against Korea on Sunday, India’s berth at The Hague World Cup will be confirmed only at the conclusion of the Oceania Cup in November.
There was a lot of fizz in Malaysia’s early raids led by Faisal Saari and Md. Fitri Saari, but it was India that forged ahead thanks to a splendid shot by V.R. Raghunath from a penalty corner within 10 minutes of play.
Stung by this reverse, the Malaysians intensified pressure but the Indian defenders, under Sardar Singh and Birendera Lakra, handled it with equanimity. Goal-keeper Sreejesh was confidence personified: one save from a penalty corner off Razie stood out for splendid anticipation and athleticism.
India clung to the lead till the end of the first session. While wing-half Kothajit Singh and Dharamvir Singh worked away on the approaches, the defenders held on in the face of consistent probing by the Malaysians.
India went on to enlarge the lead when Mandeep Singh netted taking advantage of a brilliant solo run by Ramandeep Singh 10 minutes from the final whistle.
For sheer drama and excitement it was the earlier encounter that held the spectators enthralled despite inclement weather.
The pitch was heavy after sharp showers earlier, but the Koreans were not inhibited on account of this.
Prompted brilliantly by Jang Jong from the mid-field, the Korean sallies, developed by Kang Kweon from the right and Lee Nam Jong from the middle, caught the Pakistani defenders on the wrong foot on many an occasion. Skipper Imran Muhammad held on heroically but eventually the defenders capitulated.
Holding on to the lead
Korea took the lead through an immaculate penalty corner conversion by Jang Jong, and held on to it till half time.
Pakistan’s urgency was evident in the way it responded. Shakeel Abbasi, who had sustained a painful knee injury in the first half from a clearance from Cho Suk Hoon, strove to inspire the rest.
Shafqat Rasool worked hard on the right flank as did the diminutive Waseem Ahmed in the mid-field.
However, Korea struck again early on resumption off a penalty corner. A fierce shot by Jang Jong was saved by Salman Akbar, but Lee Nam Young pounced on the rebound to slot in the second goal.
The writing was on the wall for the Pakistan, which summoned every ounce of its energy and skill to stay in the fight, and it was rewarded midway through from a penalty corner by skipper Imran Muhammad.
There was still some time left for Pakistan to make a match out of it. Frenetic attacks followed, but they were defended equally well by the Koreans.
In the final minutes, the Pakistanis withdrew goal-keeper Salman and allowed all 11 players on the field to go for the kill. But that measure did not work.
Agony was writ large on their faces as the Pakistanis left the field aware of the fact that they will miss the World Cup for the first time since its inauguration in 1971.
“It was bad news for Pakistan hockey, but we will have to live with that reality,” observed Tahir Zaman, assistant coach to the team.
The results: Semifinals: India 2 (V.R. Raghunath, Mandeep Singh) bt Malaysia 0. Korea 2 (Jang Jong, Lee Nam Yong) bt Pakistan 1 (Imran Muhammad).
For places 5-8: Japan 3 (Toshiro Tachibana 2, Kayukawa Koji) bt Bangladesh 0; Chinese Taipei (Own Goal, Al Shibli Haliyas) drew with Chinese Taipei 2 (Lin Cheng Chang, Teseng Yu-Che) Tie breaker: Oman 2, Chinese Taipei 0.
Saturday’s matches: 7-8: Bangladesh v Chinese Taipei (3:05 p.m). IST; 5-6: Japan v Oman (5-35 p.m.).
It is bad news for Pakistan, but we will have to live with that reality, said Tahir Zaman, assistant coach