A formidable challenge awaits India from the in-form Malaysia in the semifinal of the Asian Games men's hockey competition on Tuesday. Neither team was in the penultimate round in the last edition at Doha; but much water has flowed down the river since then.
It will be impudent to relate the track record of Malaysia in its matches against India. True, it serves a statistical perspective but nothing beyond.
That India has won all its 10 matches played in the Asian Games is an interesting piece of information as also the overall record of 95 matches and 68 victories, 16 drawn games and 11 defeats. Even the fact that Malaysia was beaten 3-2 in the recent Commonwealth Games is just a figure.
The Malaysians in Guangzhou are keen to come out with a new script, if not a chapter. And they have worked hard for that under Stephen van Huizen, a sincere coach without any pretensions. The results accomplished by the Malaysians must be recognised and applauded too. They had shared points with the powerhouse in Asia — South Korea, the holder of the gold — and overpowered a strong Chinese squad on ome turf to snatch a place in the last four.
This time the players have amalgamated the essence of aggression, speed and perfect finish as symbolised by the goals by Hanifi, Rahim Amin and Azlan Misron.
All these are elaborated only to project the intensity of the challenge to be expected. True, India finished without dropping a point in a comparatively easy pool, despite being stretched a bit by Japan in the last pool match.
Thus far, the team has relied on the penalty corner strikes of Sandeep Singh, the effective role of Sardar in the back zone, and the constructive work of mid-fielder Arjun Halappa. After a poor start, Gurbaj Singh has regained his touch but the worrisome factor is Prabbodh Tirkey's inconsistency in the mid-field.
What coach Brasa needs is to ensure the team elevates itself to a different plane to smother the challenge. Team work is the sine qua non for this. The attack requires greater sharpness than what has been so far.
A lot rests on the skipper Rajpal Singh, Tushar Khandekar and Shivendra Singh, apart from Dharamvir Singh and Sarvanjit, to put a greater punch in the attack and finish. Only this can deter the Malaysian defenders, and the usually energetic goalkeeper Kumar.
The other semifinal between South Korea and Pakistan is likely to produce an absorbing fare. Though Korea enjoys the statistical advantage of having won 26 of the 49 meetings losing only 13, the teams have shared three victories each in the Asian Games in which they met last in 1998. Any prediction for Tuesday is hazardous.
Notwithstanding Shakeel Abbassi's scoring skills, the team looks unsettled. The Dutch coach van Heuvel has not succeeded so far in fashioning a winning unit. How far Sohail's magic can carry forward the team is to be watched with interest.
One admirable facet of Korea's approach is the ability to raise the pace and precision to a different level in a trice. With sharp-shooters like Jang Jong and Nam Hyunwoo and strikers Seo Jongho in good form, Pakistan can ill-afford to let its guard down.