India imploded in a space of three minutes, conceding two goals as an almost harried and beaten New Zealand side rose like the proverbial phoenix to sweep aside a cruising India 3-2 and enter the final of the four-nation Festival of Hockey tournament in Melbourne.
At the start of the fourth quarter, India led 1-0. But, importantly, they dominated, holding their structure and looked like scoring more while keeping the Kiwis away. Then suddenly, everything that was rock-like about the Indian defence started to read like a false script.
Between the 47th and 48th minutes, New Zealand scored twice through Nick Ross and Jacob Smith; and the super-smart Indian defence resembled a bunch of slow-moving hippos, failing to react to, or read the ball. New Zealand for good measure scored the third through Hugo Inglis and even though India pulled back with a Rupinder Pal Singh penalty corner and then agonisingly failed with a last second penalty corner, the place in the final will now belong to New Zealand as they take on Australia. India will play Malaysia for the bronze.
The New Zealand-India game was a virtual semi-final; winner playing the final against Australia. And the intensity matched the occasion. Even though New Zealand did a high press and played with aggression, the Indian defence of Rupinder, Birendra Lakra and Surender Kumar were world class. Lakra had his best game of the tournament, constantly moving up and, more than thrice in the match, almost creeping into the Kiwi striking circle.
If there was a reason for concern in any of the three quarters it was the striking prowess of the Indian forwards, who just couldn’t slam the ball into goal and close the match off even though they had the space. For spoils in the first quarter, New Zealand had a glorious opportunity, which Akash Chikte saved thanks to his brilliant reflex. Rupinder almost scored but his flick, after beating the goalkeeper, was saved on the line by Shea McAleese, the Kiwi captain.
The stage was set for a frenetic second quarter and neither team disappointed. India, though in sheer terms of domination, were ahead by a mile. Three minutes into the second quarter, Akashdeep Singh stole a pass in the Kiwi half and advanced but his tap in trying to put it past the goalkeeper was saved by George Enerson. Akashdeep picked up the rebound and shot as goalkeeper Enerson scrambled back into goal, the ball hitting Kane Russell on the foot as the umpire pointed for a penalty stroke. Rupinder duly converted, scoring his fourth goal of the tournament and giving India a 1-0 lead.
India had more of the play as they dominated the midfield but the forwards were not creative enough; either out of position or not reading the crosses well enough. Through all this, Pardeep Mor created space but saw his shot brilliantly saved by the Kiwi goalkeeper Enersen. By the end of the second quarter, India had eight shots on goal to New Zealand’s two.
New Zealand changed the goalkeeper for the third quarter bringing in Richard Joyce. They looked slightly better, making runs down the right flank and pressing the Indian striking circle. Yet, the Indian defence looked rock solid and goalkeeper Chikte brought off his second spectacular save when he judged a cross to perfection and before Matt Rees-Gibbs could react and bring his stick down, Chikte thrust his pads out and cleared the ball.
India created a brilliant move off Mor but the pass to Nikkin Thimmaiah was shot over by the forward. He had the ball and with a lovely left drag created the space and then lost balance, killing the ball over the post.
Nothing seemed out of place as the fourth quarter began. The Indian defence was playing to potential and a goal was required from the misfiring Indian forwards to close the game out. But it was the Kiwis who responded. They were patient and somehow with all the running India made them do, still appeared strong and, now in hindsight, more ambitious.
Off a Hugo Inglis move, the ball was left free for a completely unmarked Nick Ross who gratefully took up the offering and gave the equaliser to New Zealand. Even a draw at that stage was good enough for India to enter the final. Yet, they didn’t close ranks. And nor did they rotate the ball, giving some breather to their defence.
Off a move from the left, Chikte saved but the ball bounced in the middle of the Indian striking circle. None of the Indian defenders responded as Kiwi sticks slashed at the ball taking it back to Jacob Smith who stood near the fallen Chikte. All Smith had to do was tap the ball in. It was too easy, but a good poachers' goal had given the lead to New Zealand; India looked punch drunk and reeling in shock.
In all this mayhem, New Zealand dominated and suddenly found their mojo. They moved the ball around away from a desperate India and, in the process, with four minutes left on the clock, earned their first penalty corner of the match. The variation was brilliant as Hugo Inglis slid in on the left to deflect it in for a 3-1 lead.
India sprang back to life, but it seemed a bit late. Yet, they earned a penalty corner, their second of the match and Rupinder knocked it in. For Rupinder, it was his second goal of the match and the fifth of the tournament. India pulled off Chikte and gave the bib to Raghunath as they looked for the equaliser. A shot from outside the New Zealand striking circle saw Nikkin tap in, but as the Indians celebrated, Malaysian umpire Rusli Iskandar whistled for a no goal.
India protested that the ball came off a New Zealand defender’s thigh so the least they could get was a penalty corner. But after consultations the umpire gave a free hit to New Zealand saying the deflection that came off Lakra’s stick was dangerous. For the record, rules of the tournament don’t allow a referral.
India still had a penalty corner on the last second of the match but the Kiwis saved to run away winners. Indian captain V Raghunath blamed the two-minute lack of focus in the fourth quarter. “It was those two minutes where we lost the match. We lost focus and New Zealand came back into the match.”
New Zealand coach Colin Batch said his team was too defensive in the first half and gave credit to India for not allowing New Zealand to play to a plan. “But we came out positive in the fourth quarter and once we had the equaliser, we pressed and kept our patience to win the match.”
In the final on Sunday, Australia takes on New Zealand while India will have to pick itself up and fight it out for a bronze with Malaysia.