Salalah (Oman), Jun 2 (IANS): Holders India scored two goals in the first half and defended stoutly in the second to prevail 2-1 over archrivals Pakistan in a hard-fought final of the Men's Junior Asia Cup hockey tournament here on Thursday.
This was the fourth clash between the two teams in the final of the Junior Asia Cup and the second successive after the Indians defeated Pakistan 6-2 in Kuantan, Malaysia to win the title in 2015. The event was cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic in 2021.
Both India and Pakistan have won the title thrice each since the event was started in 1988. They had played out a 1-1 draw in the league phase a few days back and had reached the final after beating their respective semifinal rivals.
On Thursday, early goals by Angad Bir Singh (13') and Araijeet Singh Hundal (20') ensured India remained in command of the game while some outstanding saves by goalkeeper Shashikumar Mohith Honnenahalli kept India in the lead throughout the match.
With this victory, India has created a new record of winning the maximum titles at the Men's Junior Asia Cup. The team had previously won the title in 2004, 2008 and 2015 while Pakistan has won the tournament in 1988, 1992, 1996.
Recognising the team's effort and their unbeaten record in the prestigious tournament which saw them qualify for the FIH Men's Junior World Cup in Malaysia, the Hockey India Executive Board announced a cash award of INR 2 lakh each for players and INR 1 lakh each for support staff.
Congratulating the team, Hockey India president Dilip Tirkey said, "The Indian Junior Men's team has made us all extremely proud with their unbeaten performance at the Junior Asia Cup. The team has shown great promise over the past few months, particularly after their historic win at the Sultan of Johor Cup they have become a dominate force and I believe this big win will hold them in good stead for the Junior World Cup later this year. Hockey India has decided to honour the players for this feat with a befitting cash award. I congratulate the team and the support staff for their efforts."
An elated Hockey India secretary general Bhola Nath Singh also wished the team on their successful campaign. "The team showcased great character and spirit of the game in every match. The team's continued success at the Junior Asia Cup is a testimony to Hockey India's national program for the U21. I congratulate the team and the support staff for keeping up the Indian team's record intact at the Junior Asia Cup."
Going into the final on the back of a stupendous 9-1 win against South Korea in the Semi-Final match, India rode on confidence to get off to a roaring start. They pushed Pakistan on the backfoot with early opportunities to score. They capitalized on their opponents' errors in the circle and punished them by converting the PC earned in the 13th minute. While it was Araijeet Singh Hundal who took a powerful shot on goal, Angad Bir Singh was quick on his feet to pick up the rebound and find a perfect deflection.
While the opening goal put India in command, a goal by Araijeet in the 20th minute helped in putting pressure on the Pakistani defence.
In the following quarter, the two teams lived up to the billing producing some tense moments that kept the full-house Salalah audience on their toes. Backed by a strong Pakistani fanbase, they were able to finally make a breakthrough in the 38th minute when Basharat Ali worked a brilliant field goal.
Though Pakistan found a number of opportunities to score through PCs in the last quarter, India custodian Shashikumar Mohith Honnenahalli made some sensational saves to keep India ahead.
It was a nail-biting finish, as Pakistan pushed for that elusive equaliser. But the spirited India Colts held their nerves to clinch the title in style and create history by clinching the fourth title in this prestigious competition.
"We wanted to win at any cost"
Speaking about the tense final, India captain Uttam Singh who was awarded the Player of the Match said, "After the 1-1 draw in the round robin stage, we were very aware of the areas we had to do well in order to beat Pakistan. It was quite a nervous Final. The team had never played in front of such a big crowd but I think created early goals helped us stay in control of the game."
Experienced India coach CR Kumar expressed that it was a good team effort. "It came down to executing our opportunities. Though I feel we could have scored a few more goals, when you are playing a big opponent like Pakistan there is a lot of pressure. But I am very happy with the way the players controlled their emotions and played to their potential."