Anxious moments and thumping hearts come as a package with Indian hockey. On a warm, sunny afternoon at the Aoti Sports Centre, Jose Brasa's boys scripted, undid and again scripted a success story against traditional rivals Pakistan in the most anticipated match at the Games.
India now have a foot in the semifinal with their last league match, against Japan, coming up on Sunday. A win will help them top the group.
Despite many a thousand seats lying vacant, chants of “Bharat Mata Ki Jai” and “Allah-o-Akbar” rent the air very time a Shakeel Abbasi or Rajpal Singh made speedy runs into the rival territory.
But then, no ordinary teams were playing in this Group B league encounter. With Pakistan, having been rubbed on the wrong side on three occasions this year —the World Cup, Azlan Shah Cup and Commonwealth Games — revenge was on their mind, and with Abbasi making life miserable for the Indian defenders, a goal was always round the corner.
Thankfully, defender, Sardar Singh, and goalkeeper, Bharat Chhetri, were at hand, though Sandeep Singh’s costly mistake nearly cost India the victory. That they managed to hold on to the 3-2 lead, despite some scrappy play, was because of the tactic of conceding minimum penalty-corners.
India conceded just one penalty corner in the 57th minute. With the dreaded Sohail Abbas taking his designated position outside the circle, hearts missed a beat.
But the plucky Chhetri palmed it away much to the relief of the Indians at the venue.
Sandeep Singh — his blunder apart when he allowed Abbasi to make a mockery of the Indian defence in the 43rd minute — was the man for the occasion.
He pumped in two goals from penalty-corners — in the third and 48th minute — to bring the smiles back. His 48th minute goal, shot with point-blank accuracy, went like a bullet past goalkeeper Salman Akbar to give the Commonwealth Games silver-medallist a 3-2 lead. Thereafter, India held on to the slender lead to make it four victories against the arch-rivals this year.
The initial flourish was provided by Sandeep after India earned their first penalty-corner in the third minute. Up 1-0, it felt things would be simple for the two-time Asian Games gold-medallists. But, the veteran of many a battle, Rehan Butt, equalised a minute later when an accurate pass from the right found him near the goal.
Rajpal, with his speed and alacrity was tormenting the defence, and with Dharamvir for company, the two conjured up the second goal. A fumbling Dharamvir managed to get his stick to a Rajpal cross to help India go up again.
Then came Sandeep’s blunder in the 43rd minute. The ace drag-flicker had all the time to thwart Abbasi, but he lost possession only to see the Pakistan forward make it 2-2. The defender atoned for his lapse, rifling in the crucial goal off the second penalty-corner. Coach Jose Brasa was fuming after the narrow win.
“My suggestion to the international hockey federation (FIH) is to come back to natural grass.” The turf has been in the news for the wrong reasons, with even former India coach from Australia, Ric Charlesworth — who dropped in at the complex — saying, “I heard it’s not up to the mark.”
India Women Beat Kazakhstan
PTI adds: Rani Rampal scored three goals as Indian eves kept alive their bronze medal hopes in the hockey competitions at the Asian Games with a thumping 6-0 win over Kazakhstan in their penultimate round robin match at the Aoti Hockey Field here today.
With this win, India, who were tied on points with Kazakhstan going into the encounter, have improved their medal chances and are now lying fourth in the seven-team competition with nine points from five matches.