The ball almost refused to ride Harmanpreet Singh’s stick at the World Cup in January this year.
The drag-flicks of the India skipper lost their edge, hurting India’s campaign that ended in the crossovers.
Asian Champions Trophy: India face Malaysia in final
Seven months from that day, here at the Men’s Asian Champions, Harmanpreet has scored eight goals and is not just the tournament’s top goal-scorer but also one of the key figures behind India’s march into the final, where they will face Malaysia on Saturday.
That is more than 50% share of the 15 goals India have scored off penalty corners and almost one-third of India’s overall tally of 25 goals in six matches.
Quite aptly then, his teammate and goalkeeper PR Sreejesh gave him the name ‘Weapon’, after the thrashing of Japan in the semifinal on Friday.
“We have the ‘Wall’ as well,” Harman returned the favour, as the mediapersons present in the press conference area burst into a hearty laugh.
The questions for Harmanpreet have changed from ‘why you couldn’t do it’ to ‘how you are doing it’. But the cool-headed India captain didn’t lose his composure after the World Cup disaster and has his feet on the ground as things have started working out for him.
“You people have the right to ask those questions. I will keep trying my best,” he had said after the win over Pakistan in India’s last league match.
Sreejesh, meanwhile, is the constant figure for close to two decades now and has been the hero of India’s many memorable triumphs, where the win over Pakistan in the 2014 Asian Games final and against Germany in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics bronze-medal match stand out.
The semi-final against Japan was Sreejesh’s 300th international appearance and he, along with fellow India goalkeeper Krishan Pathak, celebrated it by keeping a clean sheet in the home team’s 5-0 hammering of the reigning Asian Games champions Japan in the semi-final.
The popularity Sreejesh enjoys in this part of India, where fans in the stands could be seen calling him ‘Anna’ (big brother in Tamil), is something Karthi Selvam would want to command one day. Sreejesh might be from Kerala but has played a large share of his domestic hockey in Chennai and is registered as a player with the Tamil Nadu state hockey federation.
“What I am and where I am is because of the team. I want to thank them for supporting me and helping me whenever I need them,” said Sreejesh, talking about his landmark 300th match for India.
But with a gap of less than 24 hours from the moment the semifinal against Japan finished, both the ‘weapon’ and the ‘wall’ will have to return as fresh as possible to lead India’s charge against the tenacious Malaysian team.
Malaysia played their semi-final against defending champions South Korea at a fast pace and hurt them at every opportunity, winning 6-2 in the end for their maiden entry into the ACT final, having finished third on five occasions.
India never allowed Malaysia to settle during their league-stage meeting that saw the hosts pumping in five goals, without conceding any.
“It’s a big thing to be in the final. A final match is totally different when you compare it to a league match…(But) the focus will be the same tomorrow (Saturday): to stay strong in defence and score off whatever chances we create. We have done that so far, which is why the team has played so well,” said Harman, pointing at India’s unbeaten run into the final.
The only match India couldn’t win was the 1-1 draw against Japan during the league phase.
Of late, matches against Malaysia have brought back the heartbreaking memory of losing the 2018 Asian Games semifinal, where the Malaysians equalized in the dying moments and then won in the penalty shootout.
“That time was different,” said Sreejesh. “We are playing a new tournament in a new phase (of Indian hockey)…We never underestimate any team and respect our opponents and their (playing) style.”
The soaring humidity levels in Chennai have tested most teams, but Sreejesh said it suits the Malaysians, who have an equally humid weather back home.
“The hot and humid Chennai climate is more or less similar to conditions in Malaysia. So it’s a good venue for them. But we don’t have to worry about them…What is important is what we are going to do…So we will try not to give PCs and hurt them when we get an opportunity,” said the former India captain, with chief coach Craig Fulton sitting between him and Harmanpreet.
“The challenge is set for Saturday,” said the coach.