India beat New Zealand 3-2 in a tight Pool A encounter to get their men’s hockey campaign at the Tokyo Olympics underway on Saturday. India scored twice from Harmanpreet Singh’s penalty corners, with Rupinder Pal Singh contributing the other goal through a penalty stroke.
The match was a close one, especially with some late pressure from New Zealand setting up a tense finish, but there was much to like from what India showed in their game. Here are the takeaways:
PR Sreejesh on top of his game
Goalkeeper PR Sreejesh acquitted himself quite well in this game. New Zealand were expectedly disciplined, and were able to pile on consistent pressure when they ventured forward. Sreejesh used his mitts to good effect right through, including a parry on either side in the last three minutes. He topped it off with an extended low boot to his left to keep out a penalty corner (PC) with 24 seconds on the clock. He made these saves look easy, but determination was writ large as he gathered himself immediately after each one. No celebrations, no fist pumps, but just a verbal reminder to his teammates to stay switched on.
Mandeep Singh makes his mark
India made the first circle penetration of the match inside the opening 75 seconds, thanks to Mandeep Singh, another experienced member of their squad. Midfielder Nilakanta Sharma picked up a pass from the right flank, as India used a flat, long pass out to Dilpreet Singh to get the move going. Sharma’s through ball saw Mandeep, nothing more than a wisp of sinew and bones, turn his marker just on the edge of the circle and then advance towards goal. New Zealand had no option but to put in a tight, physical block, and from there, earning India’s first PC was not a big task.
The short corner riches
In Harmanpreet and Rupinder Pal, India have two of the best drag-flick exponents in the men’s field. In addition, any of Amit Rohidas or Birendra Lakra can also chip in with short corners. India’s excellence with this aspect of the game was visible in their first four PCs. The first from Rupinder Pal thudded off the crossbar after beating the keeper. The second went straight from his stick into the midriff of the postman, earning the defender a penalty stroke that he put away. Harmanpreet screamed one through the turf to get his first goal off the next one. The fourth PC was perhaps the best one. Rupinder Pal slipped in a neat no-look layup, completely throwing the advancing New Zealand defence off guard, and Harmanpreet to his left picked the cue up to ram home his second for the day.
There were some nerves early on — New Zealand did score first after all — but in an open field, Sreejesh, Mandeep and the drag-flickers should make India a force to contend with.