For Australia, it would be a night to savour as they stopped a team that was on a hot streak. The Aussies conceded first and then brilliantly fought back to take a 3-1 lead. Rupinder Pal Singh’s second consecutive penalty corner goal did raise hopes of salvaging a draw at least but the Aussies stoutly defended to run away 3-2 winners at the four-nation International Festival of Hockey tournament.
The men’s match came on the heels of an exciting 1-0 win for the women’s team over Australia. It was a shock victory for a team that is ranked 12th in the world. Beating Australia, ranked fourth must have been hugely satisfying for the Indian women, who, a fortnight back, had won the Asian Champions Trophy.
The men now had to pick up the gauntlet and make it an evening to celebrate. It looked headed that way when Rupinder converted his third penalty corner in the 21st minute. The first quarter saw both teams being extremely cautious; Australia, surprisingly playing back, a little afraid to venture too far out up front. India used that to its advantage.
With Talwinder Singh, Akashdeep Singh and Nikkin Thimmaiah playing with pace and with the constantly improving Pardeep Mor on the right flank, India were a potent threat. Both the teams have played each other often and with the Aussies being a constant fixture in the Hockey India League, tactics of either team had to be extraordinary to outplay each other. Rupinder seems to be growing with each tournament now. In the early stages of this match, he stood out with his vision and twice sent the ball into spaces where India could have created opportunities.
India was stretching the field across both the flanks. This dragged out the Aussies who are quite proficient to press and crack the opposition defence. The first clear chance came in the 20th minute when Talwinder raced into the opposition striking circle, turned and hit a reverse which struck Robert Bell on the foot. Three consecutive penalty corners followed and off the third, Rupinder converted – the range was good and the flick low and to the right of goalkeeper Tristan Clemons.
Three minutes later, Australia had their first penalty corner. Jeremy Hayward, who was a shocking exclusion from the Australian team at the 2016 Rio Olympics, set it up beautifully, flicking low and fast to Akash Chikte’s right. The Indian goalkeeper got his positioning right but Hayward's flick was propelled at a great speed.
Seeing their lead evaporate, India played a scrappy game. The midfield suddenly started making errors and the Aussies capitalised on those, rattling the Indian defence. Off a break with four minutes left in the second quarter, Affan Yousuf had a clear look at the Australian goal. He tried to strike twice but couldn’t turn smoothly as the defenders stole the ball from him and cleared it. In the dying second of that quarter, Robert Bell and Chikte almost had their chests colliding but the Indian goalkeeper managed to turn the ball away.
At the break, India led with three shots on goal to Australia’s two. India knew they had to get their attack organised. Sardar Singh, Manpreet Singh and SK Uthappa controlled the ball after the break but there were no bursts of pace or fast release of the ball.
The Australian defence was slowly and surely getting a measure of the Indian forwards and now they came up, giving their own midfield and forwards enough space to run around and create panic in the Indian defence. Even Birendra Lakra, who usually is quite reliable, saw the ball being taken away in an attack from the right.
Six minutes into the third quarter, Australia had their second penalty corner and Hayward found the net for the second time. Chikte yet again spotted the ball but couldn’t dive in time to effect the save. If Chikte would have watched the replays later, he would have been disappointed in letting the second goal in.
With their tails up, the Aussies earned their third penalty corner and this time Chikte took it on the gloves with the ball arching up and falling on the left corner of the circle. None of the Indian defenders were alert enough as Chikte couldn’t see Trent Mitton’s hard strike speed into the goal. It was a lightning strike and the Indian defence shouldn’t have lost sight of the ball. At 1-3 down, India had a mountain to climb. On top of that, Sardar became the first player in the match to be shown a yellow card, which brought India down to ten men for five minutes.
With only the fourth quarter to get two goals to equalise, India started attacking down the flanks. They took the aerial route into the oppsition half but Nikkin and then Uthappa couldn’t control the ball inside the Australian striking circle.
A VR Raghunath pass fell to Mitton who gave it to an overlapping Dylan Wotherspoon but Chikte, still hurting from the two earlier goals, came out and brought off a brilliant save. Akashdeep gave India its fourth penalty corner and Rupinder continued his rich vein of form by scoring his second goal of the match as India cut the lead to 2-3. With Sardar back on the field and India back to eleven, a few attacks raised hopes of an equaliser. But the Australian defence kept away the Indian forwards to record a thrilling victory.