Great sporting contests live long in the memory. Great battles where neither side gave an inch, Bjorn Borg v Jimmy Connors at Wimbledon in 1977, Belgium v Russia Mexico 1986, the Ashes Test Headingley 1981, all great contests, all standing out as the years pass by.
Sunday night this writer witnessed another such moment at the Sultan of Johor Cup in Malaysia. The final saw the undefeated Great Britain come up against a fast improving India. India had 12 players in their eighteen man squad who had never been outside of their country. Great Britain had ten players from last year’s competition and the Junior World Cupc squad where they played as England. Great Britain were the second oldest team at the tournament, India the second youngest.
The tournament which is the only FIH sanctioned Under 21 event outside or Confederation competitions and the World Cup gives the players of the future a chance to play in front of big and loud crowds, learn to have to back up in competition with games back to back, and also to play in a major tournament. It is a great learning experience.
With players very much in the development phase often the standard of play can suffer with unforced errors often determining the outcome of matches.
Nothing could have been further from what happened in the final. India and Great Britain put on a performance that belied their years and experience in the game. The quality of the hockey on display was truly world class. The errors made by either side were few and far between as each side refused to give an inch. Each stuck to their game plan to the letter; however one could not help feeling that Great Britain pushing their talented Captain Jonathan Gall forward cost them attacking options, as all tournament he and Brendan Creed had been the supply sources for Britain’s attacks.
India scored from their first penalty corner courtesy of Harmanpreet Singh; his goal putting him level with competition top scorer Luke Taylor (GB). Five minutes later Great Britain won their first penalty corner, the unselfish Taylor worked a variation with Sam French who pulled Great Britain level.
The game looked certain to be heading for a shoot out. India launched one last attack, the ball was driven into the circle, it looked as if naught would come from the pass, but Parvinder Singh stabbed his stick at the ball, forcing the Goalkeeper of the tournament Harry Gibson to react and block. the ball spun up off his pads and India had another penalty corner. Harmanpreet stepped forward and beat Gibson. Great Britain had twenty seconds to fight back for a second time, it was never going to happen.
Britain’s players slumped to their haunches, many in tears. The most consistent well drilled team in the tournament had been outplayed in their final game; a game that was a final game for many at Under 21 level. The manner of their defeat will no doubt have sunk in by now, but hopefully they will look back on the part they played in a truly magnificent game, a game worthy of a showpiece final.
India’s young players, smiles spread across their young faces, danced in celebration, the first team to win the Sultan of Johor Cup for a second time having retained their title in dramatic fashion. It seemed as if many could not comprehend what what they had achieved.
This victory was memorable for so many reasons. The hockey was spellbinding from such young players. The discipline shown by both sets of players was top drawer and it really was a privilege to commentate such a game and not be just a spectator.
Hopefully as this young Indian team fly home today their arrival and victory will not be lost in the news that National coach, Australian Terry Walsh has stepped down. These young men and the manner in which they won this trophy will no doubt have given the success starved Indian Hockey fans reasons for hope. Technically they were excellent, they knew when to run with the ball, and when to stop and slow play down as support arrived. They also followed coach Harendra Singh’s tactics perfectly. It would be unfair to single out individuals as this was a true team effort. From the coaches to every single player, they all had a role and a job to do and everyone of them did it perfectly and supported each other.
This was a very special game that deserves to be ranked up there with the best of sporting contests. Once more congratulations and well done to both finalists.