Mindgames on for high-voltage clash
- Sher-E-Punjab take on Karnataka Lions in the first semifinal
- It’s a team effort. I’m just doing my job, says star drag-flicker Len Aiyappa
- We are ready for the match, says Shers’ head coach Rajinder Singh Senior
Bengaluru, March 31, 2012:
This match could go on for eternity. Sher-E-Punjab and Karnataka Lions have not just competed for supremacy each time they have locked horns in the Bridgestone World Series Hockey but also tried to upstage each other in the battle for intensity. Their rivalry in the first semifinal of the WSH will replay some closely-guarded emotions stretching back to many years of cut-throat rivalry between the region in hockey and generally.
On current form, Sher-E-Punjab, who surprisingly finished second after dominating almost the entire strech of the league, appear to be the favourites ahead of their semifinal clash. Their terrific forwardline led by the dangerous trio of the skilful Prabhjot Singh, the speedy Deepak Thakaur and goal-poacher Gagan Ajit Singh will be backed up by the talented duo of Mandeep Antil and Gagandeep Singh who give them a variety of option in the attack. The midfield will be led by Pakistani import Tariq Aziz, Olympian VS Vinaya and the reliable Matthew Hotchkis, with Prabhdeep Singh Powar and Inderjit Singh giving them room for substitutions and ensuring fresh pair of legs in the crucial area. Defender Harpal Singh and Harpreet Singh Nagra have contributed with fair success in almost all departments of defence, with Nagra donning the role of a penalty-corner exponent with mixed success in the absence of a specialist in the team. This is one area where the Lions score heavily over their higher-ranked opponent and could turn the match on its head.
Their contest has all the ingredients for a Bollywood potboiler; there is the old war horse Dhanraj Pillay hoping to prove a point; Arjun Halappa and Len Aiyappa have been part of numerous battles against the Prabhjot-Deepak Thakur-Gagan Ajit trio from their days in junior hockey. Along with Pakistani drag flicker Imran Warsi and Comets’ Gurjinder Singh, Aiyappa has been one of the most prolific drag-flickers in the league, but has been definitely the deadliest executioner of the push-stop-flick drill in the league so far.
The pressure can get to even the most toughest player before a high-voltage clash, and deflecting the hype and attention is perhaps one way of focussing hard on the game. Commenting on the semifinal ahead, Aiyappa said, “It’s a team effort. That is what made the difference for us. We were last in the league at one stage but we kept speaking to each other and motivating ourselves. If I am scoring well, I’m just doing my job.”
Sher-E-Punjab head coach Rajinder Singh Senior said, “We had some good rest in between, and we are now ready for the semifinal. We had already qualified for the semis and therefore the match against Delhi Wizards (which they lost 5-7) wasn’t that important.”
Clearly, the mindgames are on fulltime as the battle for supremacy begins with both teams playing down their weaknesses and strengths before the big clash.
SEMIFINALS (APRIL 1, 2012)
Sher-E-Punjab (Rank 2 Team) vs Karnataka Lions (Rank 3 Team) at KSHA Stadium, Bengaluru, 7pm.
Chandigarh Comets (Rank 1 Team) vs Pune Strykers (Rank 4 Team) at MHA Mahindra Stadium, Mumbai, 9 pm; Live on Neo Cricket & Neo Sports.
Smashing Shers storm into WSH final
- Sher-E-Punjab trounce Karnataka Lions 4-1 in the first semifinal
- Mathew Hotchkis, Karamjit Singh, Harpreet Singh and Prabhjot Singh score for Shers
- Naveen Lumar scores the lone goal for Lions in the 11th minute
- Prabhjot Singh scores a beauty in a solo run from a few metres down the halfline three minutes before the hooter, to complete the rout
In a game hyped up so much that some feared only disappointment, Sher-E-Punjab’s passing, pressing and patience completely stumped Jude Felix’s team in the first semifinal of the inaugural Bridgestone World Series Hockey played here in front of a packed KSHA Stadium on Sunday. Shers were considered the most consistent side in the competition, but the Lions were the side who had hit true heights with huge wins in the second round. The semis was a fantastic display of hockey, but it was utterly one-sided and was over after 40 minutes.
Despite an electrifying start in the 11th minute even as 3,000 fans were jostling outside the packed KSHA Stadium, the Lions’ tendency to sit back was contrasted with the Shers playing high up the pitch, and the entire game was a complex fast chess game as the visitors ripped apart the hosts with a thumping 4-1 victory.
The opportunist Shers, exemplified and epitomized by their captain Prabhjot Singh, dominated the encounter entirely and then tactfully did not cede penalty corner advantage to the Lions for Len Aiyappa to do any damage.
Prabhjot Singh, despite seeing his lightening goal not surviving a referral, and then witnessed team-mate Mathew Hotchkis miss out the stroke he fetched, came on his own three minutes before the whistle to post perhaps the best goal of the tournament. The fourth goal, the manner in which it was conceived and the geometrical precision with which Prabhjot gave the finishing touch to it despite falling, provided enough proof of the Shers’ determination to win the match. The Lions’ forwardline failed to fetch penalty corners for Aiyappa, a sore point for the vocal crowd, and the absence of injured Ravi Pal Singh seemed to cost them heavily.
Braving an early setback, Shers came up with quick counter attacks and struck a goal apiece through the sticks of Mathew Hotchkis, Karamjit Singh, Harpreet Singh and Prabhjot Singh. Earlier, the visitors had difficulty in clearing the ball which got tucked in the left flag area. Innocent Kullu intercepted a trickling ball and sent a diagonal hit into the circle, where in the middle custodian Gurpreet Singh took it on the body but could not control the rebound, a high ball that ballooned and veered towards the right baseline but the ever-alert Naveen Kumar, standing on the right close to the cage, guided the high ball into the net. This was the moment the crowd was waiting for, and broke into a joyous celebration.
This goal actually spurred the wounded Shers. They clawed back into the match and launched their goal hunt with torrential force. Deepak Thakur and Mathew Hotchkis, propped up by excellent supply from Prabhdeep Singh and Harpreet Singh troubled the Lions relentlessly. They forced the shaky Lions to concede two quick short corners but VS Vinaya failed to give it a proper finish.
Deepak Thakur deflected the ball on the right leg of Adnan Maqsood to fetch an easy penalty corner, the third, when a few seconds were left for the first quarter. Shers went for a direct attempt and Harpreet Singh unleashed a low flick only to be blocked by Devesh Chauhan but Hotchkis scooped the rebound to bring parity.
Gagan Ajit came close to strike a few seconds left on the clock for the lemon time. Prabhjot Singh put him on the right flank and Gagan surged into the circle, but on colliding with Devesh Chuhan he fumbled with his shot despite being presented with an open chance.
Karamjit Singh, on the other hand, made use of a freak pass to find the eluding lead. Even as the entire defence was targeting marking him, the energetic colt with an eagle eye salvaged a normal looking pass, dived full in front of the charging Devesh Chauhan to place the ball into the right corner. The second goal silenced the roaring Lions supporters.
Just then a fresh Prabhjot Singh, who came after a substitution, whacked a forehand, leaving three defenders to his off side, but the goal could not survive a referral, and was turned down due to an infringement.
At this juncture, both teams appeared to lose their nerves; Lions missing out a penalty corner on Arjun Antils’ poor push and then Matthew Hotchkis pushing a stroke straight into the middle of the net which was stopped by a charged-up Devesh Chauhan. The crowd responded to the goalkeeper’s effort with a thunderous applause.
However, Prabhjot Singh had other ideas and produced his best goal for the final moment, to book his team’s flight to Mumbai for the grand final.
Final’s schedule (April 2): Sher-E-Punjab vs Pune Strykers at MHA Mahindra Stadium, Mumbai, at 9pm.