From the outset, the Pakistani gameplan was clear. They wanted to play fast, attacking hockey to rattle India. Their plan nearly worked after just 94 seconds, when they had the ball inside the net but the goal was ruled out after a video referral. That was the high point for visitors on a raucous night which saw India win 4-0 at the Mayor Radhakrishnan Stadium in Chennai. India then grew into the game and created chances in open play but didn't take them. Just as the crowd was becoming a little restless towards the end of the first quarter came the message of reassurance -- India have Harmanpreet Singh.
The sound of the skipper's low dragflick thudding into the board was loud enough to be heard at the Egmore Railway Station a few hundred metres away. It was the captain making a statement against the arch-rivals. You don't beat his team when he has a say in the matter. "India's short corners make a difference against the world's best teams, today it made a difference against us," Pakistan's assistant coach Rehan Butt told ESPN after the match.
That first goal was a critical moment in the match. Pakistan's coach Muhammad Saqlain emphasised on the day before the match the need for his side to score first, to send some jitters across the Indian team. Once that goal came from the captain, India settled down and dominated proceedings. If the first goal in the dying seconds of the first quarter was a momentum-builder for the hosts, the second midway through the second quarter sucked all the life out of the visitors. It was once again that big burly frame at the top of the D. With one flick of those powerful wrists, it was 2-0.
Harmanpreet was duly asked after this game if, for a change, it felt nice to not be answering questions about not converting enough PCs. "No, that is my responsibility, and you people have the right to ask those questions," he said.
- Hockey India (@TheHockeyIndia) August 9, 2023
The Indian captain finished the league stage of this tournament as the top scorer with seven goals in five games, but as ever, he fell short of taking credit for himself, instead once again focusing on what he called a good team performance. "I won't talk about myself," he said. "Our forwards created so many chances. They have responsibilities to take shots, score goals, win PCs. Even after that, there's the push, the stop, only after that do I come into play as a flicker," he said.
India's coach Craig Fulton has been vocal about needing to find a balance between scoring field goals and penalty corners, but at this moment, only one of those is a consistent source of goals for India. India's forwards have not been prolific from the field and have been guilty of missing some gilt-edged opportunities. So, there is added pressure on the dragflickers as well. In Harmanpreet, they have someone they can rely on. He has, after all, scored 153 goals in 189 caps for the country.
Fulton said his staff have spent a considerable amount of time devising India's strategy for penalty corners. "There's a lot of work that goes into it, it takes time, but he's the one who has to execute it. He has to put it in the right areas, and he deserves full credit for that."
"When you train with the best, you become the best," PR Sreejesh, the man who has probably faced more Harmanpreet dragflicks than any other goalkeeper in the world, told ESPN.
Harmanpreet is among the best in the world at what he does. His team relies on him to score goals. inevitably does.