Lacklustre India held by Japan
India got off to a disastrous start in the men's hockey World Cup at the National stadium in Bukit Jalil, Kuala Lumpur, on Sunday. They were held 2-2 by Japan in a Pool B match.
The 1975 champions went through several anxious moments after being two goals down and it was only the never-say-die spirit of Dhanraj Pillay which saw them snatch a vital point from the match.
The old warhorse, playing in his fourth World Cup, first pulled one back for India and then laid the ball on a platter for Deepak Thakur to score what turned out to be the equaliser.
In other matches of the opening day, Australia beat Malaysia 3-0, the Netherlands beat New Zealand 4-0, Germany defeated Argentina 5-2, Spain were 2-0 victors over Belgium, Pakistan thrashed South African 5-0, Korea beat Cuba 6-2 and England edged Poland 1-0.
For quite some time now, India have never been able to start a tournament well. At the Champions Challenge in December, at the same venue, too, they struggled to beat Belgium in the opener, were then held by South Africa and lost to Malaysia before getting the measure of Japan. Today was no different. With a virtually non-functional half line, they were unable to strike up a good rhythm to unsettle the Japanese defence.
Japan made the early play. Their game plan was to hold possession and make the quick break. It paid off as they deservedly forged ahead from their first penalty-corner in the 10th minute. Their skipper Takahiko Yamabori pushed low, from the top of the circle, to the right of goalkeeper Jude Menezes to give them the lead.
A little before that goal, India threatened the Japanese goal but Baljit Singh Dhillon's reverse hit was well saved by goalkeeper Jun Takahashi.
The Indians made sporadic efforts to the equalise and forced their first penalty-corner in the 17thminute, but poor understanding in the circle saw them waste it.
Late in session, Prabhjot Singh and Daljit Dhillon managed to break through the Japanese defence but were thwarted by some tight marking at the expense of penalty-corners.
Japan started the second session with a bang. From a swift counter attack on the right, the ball travelled to Kazuyuki Ozawa, who beat a defender and despatched a crisp shot which went between goalkeeper Menezes's feet.
Two goals down, India launched a feverish search for goals. Pillay constantly interchanged places with Deepak Thakur and ventured into the middle from the right, where he started off. That switch created panic in the Japanese defence. Within a few minutes it caved in as India forced four successive penalty-corners. Japan's goalkeeper Jun Takahashi did well to bring off good saves from the first three. However, he was beaten from the fourth as, from an indirect conversion, Pillay threw himself forward to deflect home a Dhillon through. That was in the 40th minute
The Indians pressed hard and found the equaliser six minutes later when Pillay latched on to a long ball from Dhillon and squared for Deepak Thakur, who had the easiest of tasks to push past the advancing keeper into an empty goal.
Five minutes from the end, Japan almost snatched the winner, but Menezes did well to bring off a good save from their only penalty-corner of the second half.
India will have to come up with a much improved performance in their next match against Korea on February 26 if they hope to make it to the semi-finals.
Mail Sports Editor
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