It wasn't going to plan. A final where they were favourites was threatening to get out of hand. Abu Kamal Azrai inspired Malaysia into a 3-1 lead, that they kept until the last minute of the third quarter - the minute that changed the final. The minute that Craig Fulton's India seemed like they called on previous experience of playing fast, high pressure, front foot hockey.
"This is the new India," player of the match Hardik said after the game. "We knew we were going to score those goals; we just had to be patient and play our game."
And yet, it was the old India. The winning goal four minutes from time would've reminded one of Graham Reid's time as this team's chief coach. Shamsher began the move with a precise tackle high up the field. He then moved it onto Mandeep Singh, who swiftly entered the circle and laid it off to Akashdeep Singh, whose finish was powerful and unerring.
India's fourth Asian Champions Trophy victory was a tournament that enabled Fulton to see the number of boxes that his side ticked throughout the tournament. In the final, they showed a very important facet of themselves, their ability to come back from a poor position in the game. The South African sets high standards for this team, so being 3-1 down in the first place is something he would've loathed seeing, but his side had to find a way. It was a way that he has attempted to change. Fulton's India are methodical, Fulton's India thrive on control, Fulton's India are set up to avoid chaos. And yet, what won India this final was their ability to embrace the chaos.
- Hockey India (@TheHockeyIndia) August 12, 2023
Perhaps, this is this Indian side's biggest strength - their ability to play different styles of hockey. Fulton has made them all buy in to his method of defending to win. At 3-1 down, there was no winning if India continued to defend. They needed to step up - the half-court press needed to become a high press. It was Reid's India - after all this squad isn't short of players who had their initiation to international hockey under Reid.
In a match that was billed as one between India's control and Malaysia's speed, the speed had triumphed comfortably for the first 30 minutes. In the third quarter, India were pushing but their skills were letting them down. Simple passes didn't find their target, simple traps were not being made. Then came minute 45. It is in moments like these that coaches look for inspiration on the field, one player to turn up and take the game by the scruff of its neck.
Luckily for Fulton, he didn't have to go too far looking. Nilakanta Sharma began the move with a one-two with Vivek Sagar Prasad, and then set up Sukhjeet Singh who was brought down. Harmanpreet made no mistake from the resulting penalty stroke. And then just a minute later, Shamsher and Hardik drove India down the right flank and then a ball across the face of goal led to a scrap from which Gurjant was the sharpest to react and flick it home for the equalizer.
It's these moments that you remember, it's these moments you strive for in professional sport, and there they were - an Indian collective. They weren't playing the hockey that he wants them regularly playing, but they showed just what he always puts emphasis on - the strength of the collective.
In the end, the celebrations were muted. After the match, Fulton would say, "if we'd lost this and won the Asian Games, I'd have taken that. This is not the Asian Games so our feet are firmly on the ground." The celebrations reflected this quote -- this was a tournament India had expected to win and they'd won it. Big deal. Sure the drama was off the charts, but the result? Well along expected lines.
And so, ahead of next month's Asian Games, India are in a good space. They've been tested in more ways than one and they've come up trumps. There is a Paris Olympics berth up for grabs, and India are primed to attack it in Hangzhou next month.