A rejuvenated India rose to the occasion in style beating favourites Japan by a solitary goal to lift their maiden Women's Asia Cup hockey title at the Major Dhyan Chand National Stadium at New Delhi on Sunday.
Striker Jasjeet Kaur scored the winner in the 64th minute after she snatched the ball from Chie Kimura on the 25-yard line and then left the Japanese custodian stranded with a powerful hit to give the Indians a direct entry into the 2006 World Cup to be played in Spain.
Earlier, Asian Games champion China beat defending champions South Korea 3-0 on tie breaker for the bronze medal.
It was a brilliant all-round performance by the Indians, who came into the tournament with a modest target of at least finishing in the medals bracket, as they not only kept the fast moving Japanese at bay but also maintained an upper hand over their fancied opponents for most part of the 70 minutes.
Both the teams started cautiously but the Japanese quickly began to put pressure on the Indian defence through some probing runs.
The Indians, however, kept a tight watch on the strike pair of Sakae Morimoto and Sachimi Iwao, tournament's top scorer with nine goals, and goalkeeper Helen Mary stood tall between them and the goal everytime they managed to enter the striking circle.
Mary, adjudged the best goalkeeper of the tournament, was also instrumental in ensuring that the Japanese could not convert even once from the 10 penalty corners that came their way.
The Indians, who were missing the services of injured centre forward Jyoti Kullu, tried to build on the pressure with speedy counter attacks led by Jasjeet and Sabah Anjum but could not break the Japanese defence in the first half.
The Commonwealth Champions, however, got a chance to take the lead in the very first minute of the second half when Sanggai Chanu dribbled past three defenders but failed to beat the goalkeeper.
With time running out, Jasjeet took advantage of a defence lapse from Kimura and put India on top six minutes from the final hooter.
The Indian defence came under serious pressure soon after as Japan went all out for the equaliser and won three penalty corners.
However, the hosts kept their cool to ensure that the memories of the last edition's summit clash, where India conceded the equaliser to Korea in the last five minutes and then lost on a golden goal, did not come to haunt them again.
"It was a great performance by the team which is still in the building up process. We did not start well in the championship but it is great to finish with a gold medal," Indian coach M K Kaushik told reporters.
"We can now focus and plan for the 2006 World Cup and also the Asian Games," he said.
The 16-year-old Jasjeet was adjudged the "Youngest Promising Player" of the tournament.
Later, Indian Women's Hockey Federation President Vidya Stokes announced a cash award of Rs 5.15 lakh to the team.
The bronze medal match between China and Korea turned out to be a drab affair with both teams failing to create any outstanding moves during the entire 70 minutes of play.
The Chinese forwards got a few opportunities to break the deadlock, as the Korean defence appeared disjointed, but failed to cash on the openings.
The Korean struggle continued in the tie-breaker as well with Na Young Kang, Hye Jin Seo and Sang Hee Gim failing to find the net.
On the other hand, Ma Yibo, Mai Shaoyan and Qiu Qi Chen made no mistakes with the penalty strokes for China as Korea finished outside the medals bracket for the first time in the history of the tournament.
The Koreans have won this championship thrice - 1985, 1993, 1999 - and were bronze medallist in 1989.
1. India, 2. Japan, 3. China, 4. South Korea, 5. Kazakhstan, 6. Malaysia, 7. Singapore, 8. Sri Lanka.