Drag-flix and chill: India thrash Canada 13-1 in Junior World Cup

After the unexpected loss to France, the penalty corner specialists in the Junior team stepped up in the 13-1 win over Canada

One allows the ball to fly into the net. The other generates so much pace that the ball zooms past the goalkeeper in mid-flight. And the third lets it kiss the surface and thud into the board.

Three set-piece specialists, three different styles, same result.

If the Junior World Cup is a glimpse into the future, then India’s penalty corner routines seem to be in safe hands going forward. In Araijeet Singh Hundal, Sanjay Kumar and Sharda Nand Tiwari, the junior team has three cracking penalty corner takers, with Abhishek Lakra being the fourth option.

Seven out of the 13 goals India scored against a hapless Canada in the second group game came from corners. The facile 13-1 win brought the defending champions’ campaign back on track after losing to France on Wednesday. But it was the performance of the penalty corner experts that stood out.

Chief coach Graham Reid would have been taking notes, given that the retirements of Rupinder Pal Singh and Birendra Lakra have opened up two positions in the senior team.

On Thursday, Hundal and Sharda Nand stepped up when Sanjay – who has been India’s go-to man in the first two games – wasn’t on the pitch. And he’s been remarkably consistent.

Decade-old routine

He’s scored a hat-trick on consecutive days and in both games, he’s followed the same routine: a pass gets injected from the baseline, Maninder Singh stops on the top of the ‘D’ and Sanjay flicks it powerfully, but never higher than knee-length, into the goal.

Sanjay and Maninder, who also had his name on the score sheet on Thursday, have been pulling off this drill for almost 10 years. Sanjay moved from Hisar to the Chandigarh Hockey and Football Academy in 2010, where Maninder joined him a year later.

“We have been playing together for 10 years now, so some of the moves we make on the field are purely based on instinct,” Maninder says.

The duo has been together from their academy days to sub-junior teams and now the Junior World Cup side. Against France and Canada, they didn’t need to even look up to find each other, and in penalty corners, they were seamless. “It helps, playing together for such a long time. It is not like we exclusively practice short corner routines but since we know each other’s habits, it becomes easier,” Sanjay adds.

Sanjay’s calm defending along with strong drag-flicks, which he attributes to the tips received from national team star Harmanpreet Singh, and Maninder’s ability to hustle defences have been among the highlights of India’s first two matches.

But from the team point of view, India will be relieved just to return to winning ways, given how little the margin of error is.

Team gelling together

For all the talk about speed and skill, dribbles and drag-flicks, it’s remarkable how something as basic, and critical, as communication is taken for granted.

Against France in their opening game, it felt like 11 strangers wearing an India jersey had taken the field. Their silence was deafening, and mysterious. Most of these players have been together for at least three-four years. Some, like Sanjay and Maninder, have played together for almost half their life. So have the trio from Tej Bahadur Singh’s Academy in Ghazipur, Uttar Pradesh – Rahul Rajbhar, Vishnu Kant Singh and Uttam Singh, the latter scoring two goals in two matches.

On Thursday, the decibel level from the Indian team was a big noticeable change. Goalkeepers Prashant Chauhan and Pawan, who played alternate quarters, made sure the team kept the structure and barked out instructions to the defenders whether to go long or play the ball short. The defenders were constantly talking to the midfielders, warning them if there was a man-on or if they were venturing out of position. And the midfielders would let the forwards know when to time the forward run and when to track back.

When someone erred, they weren’t shy to give them a mouthful. And there were a few such moments, especially when someone would miss-trap or concede possession cheaply.

Canada weren’t skillful and sharp enough to punish India, who will still need to beat Poland to qualify for the quarterfinals. The defeat to France means the best India can do in the group stage is finish second, which will mean a possible quarterfinal against Belgium.

The European team, whose senior compatriots recently won gold at the Tokyo Olympics, won’t be as kind as Canada and will pounce on the slightest of mistakes the hosts make. And India won’t get a dozen opportunities, as they did against Canada.

But the few chances that’ll fall in India’s way, the drag-flickers will be expected to rise to the occasion.

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