December 17, 2016 1:14:40 am
Lucknow knows its hockey. So when India went into half time of their junior World Cup semifinal trailing Australia by a goal, the 15,000-odd inside the Dhyan Chand stadium weren’t overly concerned.
The closing stages of the first half had given enough glimpses of the team’s calibre. The fans were expecting a comeback. And for once, an Indian hockey team lived up to the crowd’s expectations.
The home side showed admirable composure to come back from a goal down and beat Australia 4-2 (2-2 after full time) via penalty shootouts to enter the final of the junior World Cup after a gap of 15 years. The manner in which India stunned their much-fancied opponents made the victory even more special.
Australia know just one way of playing: to play with such aggression that the opponents are left with no chance to comeback. Especially when the opposite team is playing on their home turf. Think of the Delhi Commonwealth Games final, or the 2014 World Cup final, when they humiliated Holland 7-1 in front of their own fans.
They began with the same intent on Friday. Tom Craig, one of the two players in the Australian team at the Rio Olympics, put his side ahead with a deflection from a penalty corner in the 14th minute. In the past, India would have simply given up after conceding a goal so early in the match, and Australia would have parked themselves in India’s half, scoring half-a-dozen goals. Such was the psychological impact the Kookaburras had on India.
But this Indian side has been fearless, and at times ruthless, in its counterattacking play. Earlier this week, England and Germany coaches remarked how India are a ‘changed’ side, playing with such ‘ridiculous pace’ that it gets tough to stop them at times.
Australia coach Ben Bishop is a proud man who refrains from praising his opponents, always ensuring he puts his team first. But after the semifinals, even he acknowledged the progress India have made in the recent past. “India have put a long time in their team, mature team and a good reason for that. Their trajectory is quite promising from what they’ve shown us,” Bishop said.
Bishop has seen a lot of this Indian side to know that instead of getting over-awed by their opponent’s reputation, they stick to their style. He tried to negate that by employing some strong man-to-man marking.
But India found a way out to push the Australians back in their own half, quickly to regained possession whenever losing it and displayed opportunism that defined the attitude of this team. It also reflected in both goals they scored.
In the 42nd minute, Simranjeet Singh picked up a loose pass near the half line and passed it to Gurjant Singh.
The 21-year-old went on a diagonal run that seemed to be heading nowhere. You could hear the entire stadium urge Gurjant to pass the ball to an unmarked Armaan Qureshi inside the ‘D’. But The Haryana boy was in the zone. From an acute angle, he unleashed a Gaganajit-esque reverse hit that nut-megged Australian goalkeeper Ashleigh Thomas.
For the third time this tournament, India were making a comeback from a goal down. Now, India looked even more dangerous. You could sense the second goal was coming, and it didn’t take long. Mandeep Singh, the most experienced player in this team, proved his worth by intercepting Australian defender Frazer Gerrard’s lobbed pass near their ‘D’. With no other defender around him, Mandeep played a give-and-go with Nilakanta Sharma before calmly beating Australian goalkeeper.
It gave India the lead with a quarter left to play. Never to be written off, Australia equalised with 13 minutes remaining and there were hints of the famous Indian meltdown in the closing stages of the match once again.
But this young bunch of players held on, defending resolutely while also threatening the Australians with their own creative attacks. Even in the shootouts, they did not falter. Senior team goalkeeper PR Sreejesh’s last-minute advice worked wonders as Vikas Dahiya pulled off two splendid saves to send India through to its first final since 2001.
India coach Harendra Singh has given each of the 18 members of his squad a list of 31 C’s. It’s his mantra for success, he says. Among other things, it includes two key points: change hockey and change history. On Friday, they did both. They will now take on Belgium in Sunday’s final. A win there would tick of another ‘C’ from Harendra’s list: Change your life.
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