India overcame their biggest challenge at the 2021 Junior Hockey World Cup so far, as a solitary goal from Shardanand Tiwari saw them beat 2016 finalists Belgium in the quarterfinal. While it was Belgium who had the better scoring opportunities, crucial errors in getting the final touch and some point blank saves from Indian goalkeeper Pawan Kumar saw India making the semis, where they will take on Germany.
Penalty corner success
By nearly every metric in which a hockey match is judged, it would appear that India had come off second best in Wednesday's clash. Belgium had 54 percent of the possession, 24 circle penetrations to 16 for the hosts. They won 3 penalty corners to just one for India and had 7 shots on goal to just 2 from India.
However, in the statistic column that counted most - goals scored - it was India who came out on top, courtesy a goal from Shardanand Tiwari in the 21st minute. It was the only penalty corner that India won. Yet, India made the most of that solitary chance. Instead of going for the direct flick which had worked so well thus far, India opted for a dummy shot, passing the ball to Tiwari who took a free shot at goal.
As they make their way to the semifinal, it's clear that India's drag flick scoring will be key to their chances of retaining the title they won in 2016.
With the exception of the second quarter of the match, Belgium was the side making the chances. Not even in their opening day loss to France were India under such sustained pressure as they were in the quarterfinals. Such pressure might well have been expected to crack open a squad almost entirely composed of players who had yet to make their senior debut. Yet, the Indian defence remained solid, giving no easy chances away.
Coach Graham Reid had spoken about bringing a level of patience to the junior squad prior to their quarterfinal, although he was referring to the attack at that point. However, the calmness the squad showed in defence ought to be something Reid should be happy about. "Before the match we had spoken about staying focused and making sure we were present in whatever we were doing. Every detail and every ball counts," Reid said after the match.
Those thoughts were echoed by midfielder Varun Prasad too. "In our first match against France we were trying to do thing very quickly. We made mistakes because we didn't set things up. This time we were aware ki aaram se set up karenge (that we'll set things up patiently). We knew we had to stay in the present and stay calm," he says.
Calmness though doesn't come spontaneously - it has to be built up. "Calmness comes from being prepared. It also comes with confidence," Reid says.
Even though India were constantly seeing Belgium attacks, Reid continued to swap goalkeepers Pawan and Prashant Chauhan over each quarter. Neither had had a great game against France or had much to do against either Poland or Canada in the league matches but they came through when it mattered most. Although Prashant Chauhan had made a fine stop in the third quarter, he was swapped in the last fifteen minutes. In the final quarter Pawan came up with two saves off a penalty corner strike and then a subsequent deflection attempt to keep India in front.
"Giving keepers quarters shows that we trust them. That's a nice thing to have. You can play with confidence. At the end of all this, hopefully we have two keepers who have played in the semifinal and final. That's the logic behind it," Reid would say.
While India may have ended up winners, the statistics don't paint a flattering picture. The fact that Belgium missed at least one clear shot at goal, missed all three penalty corners and failed to make the most of India playing five minutes of the final quarter down to just 10 men suggest that India got a bit lucky.
Reid however, will say such a win is good thing too. "It's a good sign for a team to win when they aren't playing at their best. I think we can play a lot better and that's the exciting part," he says.
Indeed, in all of their matches so far in the competition, India have had one aspect of the side compensating for misfiring in another. If their counter attacking shone through even in the loss to France, their interception and defending failed. Against Belgium, their defence held up even while their forwards seemed to spend too much time on the ball, or perhaps as Reid reckons, due to nervousness or in an effort to find a Belgian foot rather than take the shot.
In the semifinal against Germany, India will hope to find success in all areas of the field. "We have the opportunity to play the semifinals and the message to the players is that we haven't won anything yet," Reid says.