The 2017 Men’s Asia Hockey Cup at the Maulana Bhashani National Hockey Stadium, Dhaka, went as per the script; almost.
Hot favourites India (FIH ranking 6) lifted the cup for the third time. The other three sides who had made it to the Super 4s in the eight-team competition were Malaysia (12th ranked), South Korea (13th) and Pakistan (14th).
Malaysia ended runners up. Pakistan, three-time winners, managed to beat the record four-time champions Korea, ranked one place higher, in the third-place match.
Nevertheless, there were some really exciting games, unexpected results and dramatic moments.
India completed the ‘grand slam’ of Asian titles: Asian Games, Asian Champions Trophy and now Asia Cup. They were by far the most impressive side. The only team to remain unbeaten in the event, India scored the most goals (28) and conceded the least (6). Still, India came across stiff competition at least twice and that too towards the business end of the tournament. In the super 4s against Korea, India were on the verge of defeat. Korea led 1-0 with just one minute left in the match. Young striker Gurjant Singh scored off a rebound to save India’s blushes.
India came across Malaysia in the final. India had trounced Malaysia 6-2 in the super 4s and many expected a one-sided final. And it seemed to be going that way when the first half ended with India leading 2-0. But a Malaysian goal in the 50th minute gave them a real scare. The Malaysian pressed hard for the equaliser but the Indian defence managed to keep the lead intact.
Malaysia might have left with the disappointment of being ‘so near yet so far’ as they came close to lifting the cup for the first time. However, they had the satisfaction of reaching the final for the first time. They had only one podium finish, a bronze in 2007. It came as no surprise. Malaysian hockey has been on a roll. In the Hockey World League semi-finals in London this summer, Malaysia were the only Asian team to make it to the last-four stage. They reached the last-four by upsetting India in the crucial pool game. The fourth position also enabled Malaysia to qualify for the HWL finals and more importantly, the 2018 World Cup. In Dhaka, Malaysia topped their pool, winning all the three matches.
Pakistan were third; same spot as in the last Asia Cup. It was the Green-shirts’ first appearance after the miserable show at the Hockey World League semi-finals in London where they were defeated by arch-rivals India 1-7 and 1-6. India continued the winning streak against Pakistan, though the scoreline, 3-1 (in pool) and 4-0 (in super 4s), wasn’t that humiliating. In the super 4s encounter, Pakistan dominated the first quarter and it was 0-0 at the end of the first half. But in the second half, India outplayed their rivals. Was it due to lack of physical fitness? The penalty corner conversion was another grey area. After Abu Bakar’s hat-trick on the set piece in the opening match against the minnows Bangladesh, Pakistan managed to score just one PC goal in the next six matches.
Every dark cloud has a silver lining. Some youngsters shone. Striker Ejaz, who scored a wonderful hat-trick in the third-place game, appears to be a good prospect. Though debutant Atiq Arshad didn’t score, he showed the ability to beat the defender and shoot. Goalkeeper Amjad did some brilliant work under the bar. But a lot of soul-searching is required.
Korea returned the unluckiest side from Dhaka. They arrived knowing winning the Asia Cup 2017 is their only route to the World Cup 2018. The other three of Asia’s big four, Malaysia, India and Pakistan had already qualified.
Korea had appeared in all the six editions since making the World Cup debut in 1994. Moreover, the East Asians have achieved the best finish for any Asian side in this millennium: fourth in 2002 as well as in 2006; losing the bronze medal match in extra time on each occasion.
The Koreans drew all their three matches in the super 4s, and with the same scoreline of 1-1. Just one win in any of the three games and they would have been in the final. Korea were on the verge of victory against both India and Malaysia, conceding the equaliser only in the last two minutes.
Coming to the bottom half, Japan were easily the best of the rest. The 17th-ranked side ended fifth, easily winning their two 5th-8th place classification matches. In fact, they were unlucky not to qualify for the super 4s. Japan and Pakistan had both finished second in the pool with four points but the latter made it on the basis of better goal difference.
Bangladesh disappointed the home crowd, losing all the three pool games, including 0-7 defeats against India and Pakistan. But the lowest-ranked (34) side in the fray had a face-saving victory over the 18th-ranked China (on penalty shoot-out) in the classification match which enabled the hosts to finish 6th.
China were expected to finish higher than the seventh spot. Still, they could easily be called the luckiest side. The world’s biggest nation will be making its maiden appearance at the World Cup next year. The Asia Cup had one slot for the next World Cup, going to the winners. If the winners have already qualified then the place was reserved for the team which had finished the best in the Hockey World League semi-finals among those who hadn’t yet qualified for the World Cup. Hence, China, eighth at the HWL semi-finals in London, have now made it.
Oman (30th ranked) finished last. Yes, they lost all the five matches. But in three of them, Omanis had their moments. In the opening game against Korea, it was 1-1 till half time. Their two contests against China (pool & classification) went to the wire with Oman going down by the barest of the margins.
All the eight teams contributed to make the 10th Asia Cup a good competition.
When all is said and done, the Asian countries with the possible exception of India currently hold no threat to the World Hockey Order. The FIH rankings don’t lie.
Player of Tournament: Faizal Saari (Malaysia).
Top Scorer: Faizal Saari (Malaysia) & Harmanpreet Singh (India) — 7 goals.
Best Goalkeeper: Akash Chikte(India).
Most Promising Player: Assad Quershi (Bangladesh).