February 22, 2015 12:19:23 am
It took 24 attempts including two rounds of sudden death in the penalty shootout before a winner could be determined in the HIL semifinal match between Ranchi Rays and UP Wizards. The Rays ended up winning the shootout 9-8 after the match ended 1-1 in regulation time. But even as his side celebrated emerging victorious by the narrowest of margins, Rays captain Ashley Jackson would have been breathing a huge sigh of relief. In the final, the Rays will take on Warriors who beat Waveriders 2-0.
For opposing sides in this season of the HIL, Jackson has been a constant menace. Going into his semifinal match against UP Wizards at the Dhyan Chand stadium in New Delhi on Saturday, Jackson had lead the tournament scoring charts with 11 goals. Each of them had come off penalty corners. Against Wizards, he seemed certain to add to that tally with another whiplash of a dragflick.
In all probability he should have. Rays had seven penalty corners in all and Jackson took each and everyone of them. Yet he was denied repeatedly by PC Sreejesh standing in the Wizards goalmouth. The India custodian and Jackson seemed to be having a battle all between themselves with Sreejesh emerging victorious.
The first drag flick in the 21st minute cracked into a defenders knee earning another PC. The next one flew fast and seemed destined to crash into the top right corner of the net, but at the last moment Sreejesh raised his hockey stick to deflect the ball to safety. Rays were not to be stopped. Another PC followed a minute later. Jackson tried a variation and passed to Austin Smith, but Sreejesh was alert to the trick. When Jackson shot for goal himself with yet another PC in the 25th minute, it was SK Uthappa who made the stop on the line.
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“It does happen that when the defenders run in a tight line you find it harder to beat them. But Sreejesh made a few really good saves. The second one I was almost certain would go in, but he got his stick to it at the last moment,” Jackson said after the game. After four attempts on their own goal, Wizards got a chance of their own with a PC. There would be no mistake made by VR Raghunath as Wizards took a 1-0 lead. Jackson himself finally found the back of the net, but it was through a penalty stroke when Parvinder Singh was tackled from behind in the 43rd minute. But while he may thought he had shaken himself out of a rut, there would be more frustration to follow. Three PCs came in quick succession beginning in the 60th minute but Jackson found a stopper’s leg on two occasion while the third was cleared. A match Rays should have won outright was forced into penalties.
At this stage Wizards switched Sreejesh with reserve keeper George Bazeley. Wizards captain Wouter Jolie later justified the decision after the game saying Bazeley was their preferred choice for penalty shootouts while Rays coach Harinder Singh too agreed saying Bazeley was stronger in a one-on-one situations. However the choice of replacing the form keeper with one on the bench seemed inexplicable.
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