In a crazy sort of a way, the third quarter unravelled in completely opposite ways for both India and Australia. India, playing solid defensive hockey with flashy runs that rattled Australia constantly and even had their goalkeeper Andrew Charter hopping around like a padded bunny. Only a stroke converted in the 28th minute by their captain Mark Knowles separated both the teams. And by the time the third quarter madness of Aussie goals and a clutch of cards for India ended, the scoreline read 4-0, enough to ping back any team. And India, by the way, was playing the World Champion and nine-time Azlan Shah Champion. Yet they came through, getting two goals in the fourth quarter, but Australia stood firm to run out 4-2 victors on a day when goals and cards ran a parallel story of their own.
It’s been a long time since India had so many cards within three matches in a tournament. Worse, they always seem to be playing with ten instead of a solid eleven lined up. The display showed it. India in the first two quarters played deep, compact without any unnecessary flourish. They understood the plan.
The Aussies had to be kept away and at the same time, aerial balls and long hits through the midfield and on the flanks to be used to get goals at the other end. The strategy was good. And the game plan was working. Runs down the flanks by Ramandeep Singh and Sumit Kumar kept the Australian midfield pegged back.
The world’s best side is not used to deep defending for long periods of time. In the early part of the second quarter, Ramandeep, picking up balls from the midfield, cut through like a speeding machete. Overlapping was Sumit and Shilanand Lakra running like they had wheels under them. Andrew Charter, hoping for a quiet time against a side that had decided to rest 8-10 senior players was saving snap shots and quick runs with either his outstretched pads or timely interventions by the gloves.
With exactly two minutes left on the clock for the break, a goalmouth melee led to a stroke, the ball bouncing awkwardly as an Indian foot couldn’t get out of the way. It was a cruel way to end resistance. And the man who came up to take it was Aussie captain Mark Knowles. His flick was on target as Australia led 1-0.
But India had a counter with a minute on the clock. Another fast run gave India its first penalty corner of the match. Varun Kumar, till then almost flawless in the defence, with fluent ball rotation flicked hard and strong. But saw the defence beaten as the ball hit the post and rebounded back into play. The break was proving elusive.
With two quarters done, the team that must have been feeling relieved were surely the Aussies. Not that they didn’t have opportunities as Tom Craig twice had almost dismantled the Indian defence but Surender and then Krishan Pathak had held him off. Leads are like aphrodisiacs and India urgently needed a shot of adrenaline. Doubts also creep in and even good teams kind of develop a drooping shoulder stance if chances and opportunities don’t translate into goals.
The Indian coach would have told the young bunch to carry on strongly and search for goals. But even he wouldn’t have imagined that India in their search for the equaliser would end up with green and yellow cards. Sumit had already got a green in the 21st minute. Daniel Beale had flashed some extraordinary skill that Suraj Karkera, who replaced Pathak had to advance into the middle of the circle to save. But in the very next minute, another rash push and Amit Rohidas was shown the green card. India was down to ten men for two minutes. Pressure was building up as Australia moved down the left flank with Trent Mitton, twisting and turning like a magic wand and his push beat an advancing Karkera for a diving Aran Zalewski to tap in.
The Aussies, four goals in front, were now moving in for the kill. It almost seemed that they would use the fourth quarter to ravage the Indian defence. But suddenly, India found momentum, again down the flanks, as they moved with Ramandeep whose flick was directed towards Gurjant Singh, already sliding in towards the anticipated deflection. But the ball hit Jeremy Edwards stick and went in. India had pulled one back.
Australian Coach Colin Batch said, “The first half was very close. We scored the goal and right after the 2nd quarter we had to defend a penalty corner. Obviously, we got the breaks in the 3rd quarter. Lots of lessons for us today and we are not happy with the way we finished the match.”
The Indian coach Sjoerd Marijne lashed out at the cards in the match but also said that he was very proud of the team. “Three quarters of the game we were better,” said Marijne. “One quarter, we played with ten players. If we had eleven players, we could have done much better. The positives for me are the way we played in the last quarter and also in the match. We also need to be realistic about the team we were facing.” Marijne also blamed the hard tackles and said the players must understand what they are doing. “Of course we have two more matches to go against Malaysia and Ireland and we will need to keep playing at the same pace and hope we don’t get cards again,” said Marijne.
Marijne said progress is being made in every match. India has played three, lost two and drawn one. On Wednesday, they play hosts Malaysia who on Tuesday’s last match of the day beat Olympic Champions Argentina 2-1. The winning momentum will be with the hosts. We may be proud of our performance, all that is fine and dandy but if sport has a soul, wins are succour for it. Solidarity, sacrifice and a team that is constantly competing are signs of progress. Maybe, two wins out of two could now be a sign of maturing.