In their trademark yellow and black, Malaysia are a team that buzzes around like bees. Hustling, pestering and – very nearly – stinging. And in doing so, jolting India out of any sense of complacency weeks before the Asian Games.
The nearly-team of world hockey very nearly scripted the tournament’s biggest upset. But they ran into a wounded India, stunned by a two-goal first-half deficit, who conjured up an attacking masterclass in the third and fourth quarters to win 4-3 and lift the Asian Champions Trophy for the fourth time.
As much as India’s fight back, Saturday’s final will be remembered for Malaysia’s ingenuity and serve as a reminder that Asian Games might not be a cakewalk for Craig Fulton’s side.
— Hockey India (@TheHockeyIndia) August 12, 2023
But on a night when they found themselves on the brink, India displayed remarkable character under pressure and showed they aren’t a one-trick pony. A team that has made ‘defend to win’ its mantra under the new coach made a tactical switch at halftime that saw them revert to their trusted high press after being forced to deploy a low block, as they went from first gear to fifth in no time
It is a playing style that India know like the back of their hand, having deployed it for a major part of the last four years, and suddenly, the players who looked rattled in the first half found their mojo.
The incessant, aggressive pressure in the third quarter bore rewards in a frenetic final minute where India scored twice in the space of 20 seconds to deflate Malaysia’s spirits and swing the momentum in their favour.
With 54 seconds left in the penultimate quarter, Nilakanta Sharma charged towards the Malaysian ‘D’ and played a forward pass to Sukhjeet Singh. The striker, who looked through on goal, was tackled from behind by a defender and the referee had no hesitation in awarding a penalty stroke to India.
— Hockey India (@TheHockeyIndia) August 12, 2023
Harmanpreet duly converted to narrow the gap. Malaysia restarted the play hoping to see out the remaining 40 seconds. But an audacious piece of pressing by Hardik Singh opened the door for the equaliser.
As a Malaysian defender tried to play a long aerial ball into the Indian ‘D’, Hardik put his body on the line while closing down the passing angle. The ball hit Hardik’s stick resulting in a turnover of possession and India were quick to get the ball into the attacking circle, where Gurjant Singh converted from a goal-mouth melee to level the scores.
The sudden turnaround punctured Malaysia’s confidence as India never took their foot off the gas. And Akashdeep Singh found the back of the net with a brilliantly taken shot from the top of the ‘D’ four minutes from full time, the result – that looked inevitable at the end of the third quarter – was beyond any doubt.
Until India made the tactical change, a packed stadium in Chennai was witnessing scenes they are pretty much accustomed to – a team in yellow dictating play. For once, though, it wasn’t a team they supported.
Malaysia’s constant pressing drew errors from India, who were pulled out of their comfort zone. The structure, something which they’ve sworn by all week, went for a toss and the mesmerising passing that was seen against Japan in the semis as well as Malaysia in the group stage was conspicuously missing.
And it was primarily due to Malaysia’s approach to the match. This was a Malaysian team that was vastly different to the one India defeated 6-0 just days ago.
Punished for their passivity in the group stage, Malaysia came out flying off the blocks and surprised India with their speed – and not just the pace while running even though it was the hosts who had taken the early lead.
— FanCode (@FanCode) August 12, 2023
Malaysia, however, kept their cool. It was hypnotising to see how quickly the ball travelled from one Malaysian stick to another and each time they won a free hit, they were quick to take it. The increased speed of their hits, passes and restarts did not give India any time to settle and the visitors took advantage of that.
India’s players were often drawn out of position and Malaysia exploited the consequent gaps in the midfield and behind the defence. The errors put India’s backline under incredible pressure and eventually, they succumbed to it.
All three goals India conceded were because of mistakes that, going purely by the performances in this tournament, were uncharacteristic.
Amit Rohidas gave away possession near the ‘D’ in the 14th minute, which led to Malaysia winning their first penalty corner which was duly converted by Abu Azrai. Four minutes later Rohidas made another error – this time picking a wrong pass inside the ‘D’ – that helped the visitors win another penalty corner by veteran flicker Razie Rahim.
Ruffled by the boldness and pace of their opponents, India struggled to keep the ball. They would lose possession in their own half and Malaysia exploited the left side of India’s defence, continuously finding space in the pocket behind the full-backs to enter the ‘D’.
That’s how they scored the third goal after they earned a penalty corner by sneaking behind the defence on the left, finding Sumit’s foot and Muhamad Aminudin converting the corner.
At that point, it felt like the moment had come for one of Asia’s most passionate hockey countries to win a major trophy. But it all unravelled for them in the second half, where they ran into a rampant India.
It was a rare title on home soil for India. One that has come with a big wake-up call before the Asian Games.