BHUBANESWAR: It was a festive day in Odisha, and the locals in the state capital celebrated ‘Raja’ in the stands of the Kalinga Stadium, watching the Indian team zoom past South Africa 5-1 in the final. It completed India’s perfect 5/5 record to finish the FIH Series Finals unbeaten and on top, with a place in the Olympic qualifiers in their bag.
The narrative of the tournament didn’t change on its final day. A top-place finish was considered a given for the hosts in the lop-sided eight-team competition, and the script didn’t have any anti-climax. The 16th-ranked South Africa remained a poor second for majority of the 60 minutes. But they won’t mind what they have collected after an effort of 10 days — a place in the Olympic qualifiers by finishing second.
The scoresheet showed India making use of three of their five penalty corners on a day when they bossed the game the best so far in the tournament. Varun (2nd and 49th minute) flicked home twice from the top of the circle, while Harmanpreet Singh (11th) was on the mark once each off a penalty corner and a penalty stroke (25th).
Vivek Sagar Prasad (35th) struck India’s lone field goal.
South Africa’s consolation strike arrived in the 53rd minute through Richard Pautz but by then the writing was on the wall.
For a start, India corrected their ‘opening’ mistake from Friday, when they had conceded an early goal against Japan. On Saturday, they scored one, when Varun slotted his slap perfectly inside the African post within the first 120 seconds.
Harmanpreet wasn’t to be left behind and followed suit nine minutes later, when he too beat the SA custodian Rassie Pieterse.
South Africa’s best chance came in the last play of the first quarter, but Krishan Pathak did well to get his body in the way of two consecutive shots at India’s goal.
The South Africans looked more gathered and penetrative in the second quarter, but couldn’t get the result at the end of a goal-mouth melee in front of a solid PR Sreejesh, who replaced Pathak in the second quarter.
In the 25th minute, though, a stick-check on Birendra Lakra inside the circle cost South Africa a penalty stroke, and the ice-cool Harmanpreet made no mistake.
The first half-ended at 3-0.
The African team put the Indian defence under pressure in the first two minutes of third quarter, but it was India who once again sounded the board as Vivek, who had a splendid outing, was alert to push the ball in after Mandeep Singh and Simranjeet Singh knitted a nice 1-2 web.
Two more goals in the last quarter had the festival-day crowd, almost 10,000 of them, bobbing in the stands — more, of course, when Varun scored his second penalty-corner strike, before Pautz struck the game’s last goal.
1. India (through to Olympic qualifiers)
2. South Africa (through to Olympic qualifiers)
Player of the Tournament: Manpreet Singh (India)
Best Junior Player: Vivek Sagar Prasad (India)
Best Goalkeeper: Jonathan Klages (USA)
Fairplay Award: India
Highest Scorers: Harmanpreet Singh, Varun Kumar, Semen Matkovskiy