India lifts second junior hockey world cup


Lucknow: Indian Junior hockey players celebrate after their victory over Belgium in the final Junior World Cup Hockey 2016 in Lucknow on Sunday. PTI Photo (PTI12_18_2016_000188B)

LUCKNOW: Gurjant Singh would have lived the scenario several times in his dreams: a World Cup final, the crowd cheering him, and he beating the goalkeeper with a fierce hit. But even in his dreams, the 21-year-old wouldn’t have executed it with such precision. Varun Kumar, the scorer of India’s first goal in the junior World Cup, spotted an idle Gurjant near the Belgian ‘D’. You could have forgiven the European side for assuming it was harmless to leave Gurjant unmarked.

It isn’t India’s style, after all, to play long, aerial balls. But this Indian style has ditched several old ways. And the Belgians would realize that the hard way. That Varun dared to play the lobbed ball – that travelled half the length of the field from right to left – was a surprise in itself. Belgian defenders were caught off guard and they failed to control it. Gurjant was the first to reach. He controlled the wobbling ball with the two deft touches and took it away from the defenders.

To close Gurjant’s angle, Belgium goalkeeper Loic van Doren charged towards him. Gurjant looked up, saw the tournament’s best goalkeeper running towards him, then spotted faintest of gaps between him at the post, and from an acute angle, unleashed a reverse hit that flew past Van Doren.

It was one of the finest goals of the tournament, if not the finest. And it couldn’t have come at a more crucial moment. That goal, in the 8th minute, changed how the final would be played. Belgium are a side who like to play patient, structured hockey. They prefer scoring first and generally rely on their technically strong defenders to see out the rest of the game. That’s how they defeated India in the Olympics quarterfinals and their juniors followed the template in the World Cup.

But India coach Harendra Singh had a plan, which his team executed to perfection. On the eve of the final, Harendra said the most effective way to unlock the Belgian defence was to play diagonal passes into their ‘D’. Most of India’s attacks came from the flanks, and combined with the raw pace of the midfielders and forwards, Belgium looked visibly uncomfortable.

The strategy also yielded India’s both goals. While the first was scored from a diagonal lobbed pass from right to the left, the second came in the 22nd minute from India’s movement from left to right. Nilakanta Sharma picked up a loose ball on the right, near the 25-yard line, and played it towards Simranjeet Singh on top of the ‘D’. Simranjeet took one touch to step away from the defender, and then beat Van Doren with a powerful shot. Two reverse flicks, two goals.

If the crowd hadn’t already deflated Belgium’s confidence, the second goal surely did. Chaos is how Belgium coach Jeroen Baart chose described the opening half hour. “The players couldn’t handle the chaos of the Indian team, and the crowd,” he confessed.

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