India's young guns fill big shoes in opening day rout of South Africa

Akashdeep Singh (L) played a role in India's opening goal, and went on to score one and assist two in the opening match against South Africa. Charles McQuillan/Getty Images for FIH

The noise made by fifteen thousand souls jam-packed in the stands of Bhubaneswar's Kalinga Stadium is unmistakably loud and intimidating to visiting teams. On Wednesday however, when South Africa took on hosts India in their opening match of the Hockey World Cup, there was an undercurrent of nervousness to the booming "India! India!" chants.

Nearly ten minutes had gone by with the two sides still deadlocked 0-0. It was still early in a game India were expected to win, and the run of play was with the hosts too. Yet, there were also genuine concerns. History and anticipation weigh heavily on the young shoulders of this team. With an average age of 23 and a half years, this is a genuinely young squad. The recent exits of Sardar Singh, Rupinder Pal Singh, SK Sunil and Ramandeep Singh for varied reasons have shorn decades of experience from this side.

On Wednesday at least, this relatively untested set suggested they were up to the task. Mandeep Singh, 23, settled nerves in the 8th minute, calmly swiping the ball goalwards after an initial block off India's first penalty corner of the game. Akashdeep Singh, also 23, got the crowd going four minutes later, scoring off a quick pass from another 23-year-old, Varun Kumar in midfield, with the ball taking a handy deflection from Simranjeet Singh, 22, midway.

Simranjeet and Mandeep would also combine for the third goal, which ended a period of pressure from South Africa for most of the second and third quarters. An accurate long-range pass was controlled at full stretch by Mandeep, eventually finding its way to Simranjeet who coolly tapped in after an initial deflection off the South African keeper. Akashdeep would assist once more with an accurate long-range pass for a clever deflection off Lalit Upadhyay, who at 24 was the only scorer above the team's average age. It turned out to be a minor transgression, as Simranjeet got his second with an alert, poached goal following an initially botched penalty corner to complete the rout.

While the crowd was settled and eventually spoiled by the goal glut, there were other pleasing signs too. Amongst the standout performers of the day was Akashdeep Singh with his goal and two assists. He's no novice, having made his debut with the senior team some five years ago. He played as a forward then, frustrating and enthralling fans in equal measure.

Under coach Harendra Singh though, Akashdeep has begun to play a far more dynamic role.

It's early days still, but Harendra believes Akashdeep could eventually fulfill the same role for India that Dhanraj Pillay did nearly two decades ago. "After the Sydney Olympics, Dhanraj changed from a striker to a playmaker. That is the role I have defined for him."

Akashdeep, Harendra says, has all the attributes for that position. "Akashdeep is the linkman of the team. He has excellent peripheral vision. He also has the skill and the ability to eliminate (shake off) at least one opposition player. He also has the ability to make very crisp and clean passes. That makes him lethal for the opposition and allows us to have three strikers up front. That's what we need," Harendra said after the game.

On Wednesday, Akashdeep played out the role envisioned for him to near perfection. Even before the first goal, he was in the thick of things. He seemed to be everywhere he needed to be. He nearly created India's first goal out of nothing, stealing the ball right of midfield from Richard Pautz before passing it to Mandeep up front. He even played a role in India's eventual opener, making the push in the first penalty corner.

It wasn't an entirely seamless performance. When South Africa pressed hard in the second and third quarters, there were moments where India looked ready to break. In those moments, PR Sreejesh, the oldest member of the team, stepped up. In the 41st minute South Africa had a clear shot at goal but the Indian goalkeeper stuck his pad out in time to deny them.

South Africa were left to rue their chances. "We didn't take our chances. We were 2-0 down then. If we had made it 2-1, it would have put India under pressure. But Sreejesh made a great save," said South African captain Tim Drummond.

That was the moment to turn things around and it had passed. India eventually understood how those openings were being made. "South Africa had created those openings by introducing an additional player in their midfield," Harendra said. The threat was analysed and neutralized. "It took us three minutes to understand it and decide what to do," says Harendra.

Indeed, India's young side were learning fast.