In the biggest match of his short coaching career with the Indian men's hockey team, Craig Fulton's on-pitch philosophy was realised to the fullest extent. When appointed as India head coach in March, he spoke about his style as 'defend to attack' and not losing control of the match. India played that exact way to win the Asian Games gold medal in their comprehensive win over Japan in the final, thereby qualifying for the Paris Olympics.
India scored five goals, two from Harmanpreet Singh, one each from Amit Rohidas, Abhishek and Manpreet Singh. Japan scored one in the final quarter, the only blemish in a strong performance that capped off a brilliant campaign where they remained unbeaten, scoring at least four goals in all the matches.
But it was the final that really stood out against the defending champions, who could have hurt India in short bursts of counter-attacking play and converting their penalty corner chances. It was also a performance that showed India have completely left behind the Graham Reid brand of hockey. Under their previous coach, India were usually very quick off the blocks, relentless with their attacking hockey and pushing to outscore their opponents. Entertaining but a little wayward.
On Friday, the Indian men's hockey team was all about control, intensity and focussed defending. They did not score the opening goal till the 25th minute, and they weren't creating much before that either. To their credit, Japan were defending well. They quickly transitioned into a compact unit whenever India had the ball and tackling inside the circle was brave and spot on.
India took their time. They didn't slow down the match but they also didn't lose the intensity. When Manpreet Singh sent a fierce tomahawk into the goal, it was a reward of keeping control of the proceedings and putting sustained pressure as much as the Indian midfielder's brilliant effort.
Even when there was a break in momentum, after the first two quarters, India didn't drop their intensity. Without trying too much, they maintained their grip on the match. Eventually, India did the job without much fuss and stopped Japan from creating significant chances. In fact, Japan won their first penalty corner only in the last quarter.
Players stepping up big time to seize gold
India depend on their captain and dragflick extraordinaire Harmanpreet for goals. This will not change in the future, but the team's Asian Games performance was defined by others stepping up and scoring goals to reduce the dependence on their captain.
One of the biggest positives from the tournament was how Varun Kumar and Amit Rohidas stepped up to convert penalty corner chances. Varun, who didn't play the final because of an injury, and Rohidas scored five goals each from penalty corners. The competition at the Asiad is not world class but India couldn't have afforded any lapses with the Paris Olympics quota at stake. When Harmanpreet was having an ordinary game in the semifinal, Rohidas stepped up to convert a dragflick. He took the confidence of scoring the goals in the previous matches and delivered in the semis and final.
The huge burden on Harmanpreet was one of the reasons India failed at the World Cup. When his dragflicks stopped working, India struggled to score. At the Asian Games, forwards Abhishek, Mandeep Singh and Lalit Upadhyay contributed with important field goals. Not just against lowly ranked opposition like Singapore and Uzbekistan but also against better teams like South Korea and Japan.
Fulton and his team have achieved the objective of making it to the Olympics. This was the first task given to the new coach and the players who started a fresh chapter after a disappointing World Cup. Fulton proved that there was no need for a full overhaul of the team, the same set of core group of players can adapt to his ways. Now the focus shifts to fine-tuning the style and getting results consistently before they board the flight to Paris in search of the ultimate medal.