India's Ramandeep Singh and Pakistan captain Muhammad Imran starred with two goals each as the traditional rivals played out a bruising 2-2 draw in a group clash of the World Hockey League (HWL) Semifinal on Friday.
Even though the honours were shared, the anticipated Pool A clash lived up to its billing at the Brasschaat Municipal Park here.
Ramandeep (13th and 39th) scored for world No. 9 India, while world no. 10 Pakistan were bolstered by Imran strikes — a penalty stroke and a penalty corner in the 23rd and 37th minutes, respectively.
Asian Games champions India were threatening to score a late match-winner when their strikers thrice took shots at the rival citadel in the last three minutes during a surcharged encounter played at a brisk pace.
The Indian defence gave a fine exhibition, but there were a lot of wayward marksmanship by their strikers as Pakistan also fell back to defend stoutly in the first encounter between the two sides since the Champions Trophy semifinals in December last year.
Pakistan won that Champions Trophy semifinal contest at Bhubaneswar by one goal, but obscene gestures in the onfield victory celebrations led to suspensions of two
This draw gives India seven points from three outings in Pool A ahead of the fixture against World champions Australia.
Pakistan now have four points from three matches, having lost the match against Australia.
Berths for 2016 Rio Olympics are on offer in HWL. India have already booked their ticket to Rio by beating Pakistan to claim the Incheon Asian Games gold.
Coming into the event, the Indians are a relatively relaxed bunch and coach Paul van Ass is trying out options. The stakes, however, are much higher for Pakistan. They are yet to seal their spot in the Olympics.
India could afford not to field their best squad in the HWL semifinals, which otherwise is the last chance for some teams to qualify for the Olympics.
The top 4 sides from the 10-team tournament will proceed to the HWL Final to be played in November-December in India. The top-3 teams will qualify for the Rio Olympics.
But some teams ranked slightly lower may also get a chance if any of the countries also feature in the five places available to winners of continental tournaments.
India were the better team at the start on Friday with the players combining and coordinating well. They got the more of the ball possession in the first quarter as Pakistan took time to get into rhythm.
Pakistan got a great chance of going ahead as Shakeel Ammad set up Muhammad Waqas only for the latter to waste it.
However, India got the crucial 1-0 lead in the 13th minute as Gurmail Singh drove the ball inside the Pakistan circle with blistering speed and Ramandeep, lurking in front of the goal, made full commitment and threw his body to deflect the ball in.
In the second quarter, Pakistan regrouped and bounced back strongly to make lethal circle penetrations and threaten Indian goalkeeper PR Sreejesh every time.
The best part of Pakistan was the way they managed the space in the field while it seemed India, after getting the lead, were more focused on keeping their lead.
Sparks flew thick and fast between the two Asian giants and players didn't allow each other free space.
Pakistan got a penalty corner in the 23rd minute and skipper Muhammad Imran's flick was saved on the goalline by Devindar Sunil Walmiki with a backstick, leading to a penalty stroke. Seasoned Imran stepped up to convert it to a goal even if Sreejesh correctly dived to his right.
India responded well and were rewarded with a penalty corner that was wasted by a poor strike from Manpreet Singh. Both teams went to the half-time locked 1-1.
Continuing their ascendancy, Pakistan played a fluent game as India played with 10 members as Satbir Singh sat outside following a yellow card.
Pakistan earned a penalty corner in the 37th minute that was converted successfully as Imran flicked high into the net, easily beating Sreejesh.
India responded two minutes later as Devindar got a pass from skipper Sardar Singh and surged into the rival circle to set it up for Ramandeep, who lifted the ball high into the net for his brace.
With the game still 2-2, India and Pakistan both wasted a penalty corner each in the fourth quarter as their stoppers failed to properly check the balls after the push.
India, especially, missed the absence of a penalty corner expert as their top artist VR Raghunath is in India due to injury and Rupinder Pal Singh is yet to fully recover from an injury sustained during a warm-up game here.
The responsibility was on Manpreet and in this match filled with pressure, it was a demand too much for the youngster as the rival goalkeeper Imran Butt had a good day in the office.
Butt showed very good reflexes as he dived twice in one minute to keep India at bay and ultimately both the teams tried in vain in search of the winner.