Speaking after his team had finished top of their group in the Hero Hockey World League, Australia’s coach Ric Charlesworth was asked about the side’s likely opponent in the quarterfinals. After 2-0 and 3-1 losses in their first couple of games, India, who would play Germany later in the day, were a near certainty to finish bottom of their group and thus play the Kookaburras.
Charlesworth refused to dismiss the hosts outright or maybe he was just being polite. “India is a strong team. They have the firepower. But do they have the belief?” he said.
The nature of their earlier defeats – the hosts had trapped and passed poorly and were structurally unsound — had indeed appeared to leave India shell shocked. Ahead of Monday’s final league game against Germany, the best hopes for the Indian team would have been an honorable margin of defeat. Expectations of even a draw would have been overly optimistic. Yet, with three minutes left on the clock, the unthinkable seemed to be becoming a reality. India led the Germans 3-2, within sight of a win, their first over the World No.1 in nearly four years.
The unthinkable wasn’t to be. More in hope, Tom Arnold scooped a ball from close to the half-way line towards the Indian goal. It dropped and bounced harmlessly at Sardar Singh who was standing in a defensive position ahead of the goal. The Indian skipper could either have stopped the ball or swatted it away. In the end Sardar, who had played a blameless game till then, did neither. The ball fell helpfully in front of the giant German striker Thilo Stralkowski. Standing just a few yards away from the goal, Stralkowski swung with all his might at the ball. 3-3. There was little celebration afterwards.
The result gave India their first point of the tournament. Yet its value will surely be far more for the side. They had led Germany three times in the game. They found their passes and trapped cleanly. They harried their opponents constantly and it was the Germans who were consistently under pressure, making errors and gifting turnovers. Coach Terry Walsh would have been a extremely relieved man but he remained modest about his side’s performance. “We did several things better today. We played better against a quality opponent like Germany. I think the opponents didn’t play that well today,” Walsh said.
India had the better of the opening exchanges and Affan Yousuf earned a PC in the 10th minute. VR Raghunath’s low flick was correctly anticipated and kept out by keeper Jessulat. Germany earned a PC of their own five minutes later, but PR Sreejesh padded away the high ball. India finally took the lead in the 19th minute via an own goal after Raghunath got a deflection from Benedikt Furk.Germany, however, drew level in the 24th minute from their second penalty corner, which was perfectly converted by Martin Haner.
India, however, were constantly on the counter and earned two more PC’s shortly. Raghunath missed again in the 29th minute. India finally got their first PC conversion off their ninth try in the tournament when Rupinder shot one along the ground two minutes from the break.
Chasing once again, the Germans pressed hard after the change of ends. The Indians appeared initially to be resting on the lead and the space they gave allowed Germany to find holes in the midfield. The Germans earned their third penalty corner just three minutes into the second half, but Haner shot wide. However, they again clawed back level when Tom Arnold’s long range shot found a deflection off an Indian stick to beat Sreejesh.
Despite the equaliser, India continued to press hard. Yuvraj Walmiki earned a PC in the 52nd minute when he was tripped up by Florian Fuchs and although Raghunath’s strike was blocked by Jessulat, pusher Dharamvir was alert enough to pounce on the rebound. India could easily have increased the cushion five minutes later. SV Sunil was quick to capitalise on a turnover by defender Linus Butt and passed to Sardar Singh who surged along the center into the D from where he shot while falling. A diving Jessulat parried the ball but it fell perfectly for Sunil who missed a sitter.
As it ultimately stood, India did finish in the bottom of the group and they will take on Australia. And for that game at least, there will be belief.
In other games, England topped Group A with a 5-1 win over New Zealand. In group B Australia humbled Argentina 6-1 while Netherlands drew 2-2 with Belgium.
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