In their first major tournament since a fourth-place finish at the Commonwealth Games, the Indian women's hockey team recorded their second successive victory at the Asian Champions Trophy, beating China 3-1 in Donghae, Korea on Wednesday. The tournament is played among five teams - Korea, China, India, Japan and Malaysia - with the top two qualifying for the final after a round-robin league.
India, who have gone into this tournament without two of their most experienced players in striker Rani Rampal and defender Sushila Chanu, had beaten Japan 4-1 in the opening encounter on Sunday. With Malaysia, whom India beat 4-1 at the Commonwealth Games recently, and hosts Korea left to play in the league stages, the Indians are expected to make the final of the tournament they won for the first time in its last edition in 2016, and it should be a good tune-up for the World Cup in England in July.
In coach Sjoerd Marijne's second tenure with the side, they may have begun well, but will need to improve on a few other aspects of their game to be considered title contenders in a field where they are the third-highest ranked side, with both China (8) and Korea (9) above them.
Without Rani, Navneet Kaur has stepped up as the go-to player in attack, starting with a hat-trick against Japan. She didn't score on Wednesday, but her interplay with Vandana Katariya, Navjot Kaur, Anupa Barla and Lalremisiami has meant India have been a big attacking threat throughout their matches. Strong and swift, Navneet is a difficult player to take the ball away from, and she has shown the required awareness of players around her to be the playmaker that can complement Rani perfectly.
India have surprised Japan and Korea with the overload of players attacking the opposition circle when in possession, and the fact that they have scored five field goals and just two PCs has underlined how the forwards have pounced on chances in front of goal.
Gaps in midfield need plugging
When India get the ball, they appear hard to contain. However, that leaves spaces in midfield that the opposition have exploited.
China had their brightest moments early in the second half, when they trailed 2-0 and threw more players forward in a bid to look for goals. They pulled one back, and had India pinned on the backfoot for most of the second half. Gurjit Kaur's PC conversion with nine minutes to go gave India some breathing space, but a better-organised team will capitalise on the gaps and score more goals.
Errors in defence, but Savita saves
For the second match in a row, the Indian defence looked jittery when put under pressure. India had conceded their share of PCs against Japan, but Savita Punia in goal had kept everything at bay with a quality display. Japan's only goal was a late consolation, after Savita had switched with reserve goalkeeper Swati.
The experienced defensive duo of Sunita Lakra and Deep Grace Ekka were stretched repeatedly on Wednesday too -- China had six PCs in just the first half -- and the game also ended with the Chinese team bombarding India with three successive PCs in the last 20 seconds. This time, Marijne kept Savita in the match throughout, and she combined with her defence to pull off save after save.
A team with a better drag-flicker, or an off-day for India's top goalkeeper, would be costly in such a situation. That is the biggest gap this young Indian team, which has shown signs of building on an encouraging Commonwealth Games performance, must plug at the business end of the tournament.