There were no fireworks, no sloganeering. But yes, India did beat Pakistan in the Round Robin stage of the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup hockey yesterday.
Inspired by forward SV Sunil’s brace, India outclassed their traditional rivals 5-1to move to second spot.
It was a great win but not that great considering the sport is fighting for its survival in Pakistan. Many would agree that the foundations of cricket rivalry between the two countries was laid by hockey players, especially after the India’s famous 1975 World Cup victory over their neighbours in Malaysia.
The India-Pakistan rivalry was at its peak when the two sides fought for gold in three successive Olympic finals — 1956 (Melbourne), 1960 (Rome) and 1964 (Tokyo). India won in ’56 and ’64, but lost in Rome.
In recent years, Pakistan has deprived India of the pride and satisfaction of beating them. But in the bigger picture, Pakistan’s decline has been steady. Imagine a country that holds a record-four World Cup titles has failed to find a seat at the 2016 Olympics.
In 2014, Pakistan Hockey Federation had refused to send the team for the Bhubaneswar Champions Trophy before a highprofile businessman from the country stepped up to sponsor the side.
It was in Bhubaneswar that the India-Pakistan match generated a lot of media attention, but for all the wrong reasons. After beating India in the semis, Pakistani players not only removed their shirts, but also made obscene gestures at the crowd. After all the victory had come after a long time.
India, despite having a good team, struggled against Pakistan in the 80s, 90s and 2000s. Pakistan dominated not only India, but was seen as a formidable force in world hockey.
But yesterday, Pakistan was nowhere on the field. The Indian side did not leave an inch for the opposition.
Coming into the match with three insipid performances, India needed a win over their eternal rivals. And in such a match the start is important and India did just that, aided by Sunil’s pace. The 26-year-old’s speed helped him race from the centre of the pitch to the rival circle in a flash. The Karnataka winger then passed the ball to his left to Manpreet, who fired a reverse-flick, beating goalkeeper Imran Butt who remained stranded on the near post in the fourth minute.
Pakistan responded strongly three minutes later by earning a penalty corner. The hit was blocked illegally and in the second attempt, Irfan’s 104 km/ph flick managed to beat a diving goalkeeper Akash Chitke on his right.
India’s reaction to the goal was quick. In the 10th minute, Manpreet was back in the thick of things as he drilled the ball into the Pakistan goal from the right that was deflected home from point blank range by Sunil to make it 2-1.
Sunil delivered a crucial goal at the important juncture. After receiving a pass from Kothajit Singh, Nikkin Thimmaiah squared pass for Sunil, who was lurking in front of the goal at the far post, to tap in with a diving effort.
Talwinder drove a ball home in a goal-melee in the 50th minute. However, more drama was still in store as Rupinder stepped up to convert a penalty corner and later missed a penalty stroke to deny India a 6-1win.