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A commendable recovery by India

S. Thyagarajan

Kuala Lumpur: Many an Indian supporter would have missed a beat or two as India, trailing 0-2 at half-time, managed a draw against New Zealand in the Sultan Azlan Shah hockey tournament here on Friday. Interestingly, the last meeting between these two, at the Champions Trophy in Lahore, also ended in a draw (1-1).

That India showed the gumption to recover after being outplayed in the first half is commendable. Against a combination that was perfect in fundamentals and in defence of penalty corners, the Indians appeared an improved lot. In the second half the Indians dominated, creating a cascade of moves. But, frustratingly, they frittered away the openings. No doubt, Prabhjot Singh scored the equaliser late in the match, but there were several opportunities that he failed to capitalise on.

Even admitting to the athleticism of Kiwi goal-keeper, Paul Woolford, there were moments when he looked vulnerable. The Indian frontline, which threaded a few eye-catching sallies, lacked a matching finish. This was true even in the conversion of penalty corners. The Kiwi defence was too well positioned to thwart the flicks of Len Aiyappa and Dilip Tirkey.

Lack of variation

Variation was also lacking. The only indirect attempt following a push by Aiyappa ended in agony with Deepak hitting the sideboard. For a moment, the Belgium umpire Vincent Loos was confused and awarded the goal until the Pakistani umpire Qaiser Loni pointed out the error.

There was a touch of vibrancy in the Kiwi attack led from the wing by Brooks. Fluent runs by Bevan Hari ably supported by Ryan Archbald and Simon Towns troubled the Indian defence. While the mid-field looked unsettled till the induction of Bimal Lakra, the deep defence of Dilip Tirkey, Aiyappa and Harpal Singh was stoic if not strikingly efficient.

Harpal Singh, in particular, deserves a word of appreciation for the manner in which he went for tackles and clearances. Goal-keeper Devesh Chauhan gave another impressive performance effecting a few smart saves.

Deepak Thakur is yet to strike form, while Sandeep Micheal is developing into a misfit. India is definitely missing Gagan Ajit Singh who is serving a three-month ban.

Halappa produced a few neat crosses to cause some panic in the rival defence, especially in the second half. That India did not concede even a single penalty corner is a point worth mentioning.

When Darren Smith produced a stunner of a shot from a rebound off Devesh Chauhan midway in the first half it was clearly against the run of play. But that effort enthused the attack. And within minutes Hari slotted the second off a cross from Brooks.

India's penalty corner execution suffered because of a watery surface consequent to a heavy downpour during the break. Coach Rajinder Singh (jr) said the ball rolled too slowly for Aiyappa to take the flick with any velocity.

Midway through, a long cross by Aiyappa put Prabhjot on the move. Woolford baulked the effort but Rajpal Singh tapped in. Encouraged by the success, the Indians stepped up pressure, enmeshing the Kiwis, who were reduced to 10 after Dean Couzins earned a yellow card, with a series of forays. Lakra presented Prabhjot with an astute forward pass but the latter's push was too feeble to disturb Woolford.

The equaliser

When seven minutes remained for the hooter, Aiyappa, from a penalty corner, pushed the ball to Dilip Tirkey whose pass was tapped in by Prabhjot for the equaliser. In the final minute Deepak worked up a neat opening, but Prabhjot Singh fumbled, missing the target by inches.

Korea made many sit up and take notice of its new combination. Pitted against defending champion, Australia, the Koreans emphasised the value of power play. A 2-0 lead at the 38th minute, both from Eun Seung Hung, mirrored the team's tight attack and defence. In the end it was a 3-3 draw.

It was a struggle for the Aussies almost through the match to challenge the pace set by the Koreans. Luke Doerner converted a penalty corner midway through. This was followed an opportunistic goal by Mike McCann and then Travis Brooks ensured the lead. But half a minute before the final whistle Hyo Sik You levelled, leaving many clear in their mind that this team will emerge once again as a force.

Malaysia earned its first point after Periathamby equalised against South Africa in the second half. Justin King had slammed in a penalty corner in the first session.

The results: India 2 (Rajpal Singh, Prabhjot Singh) drew with New Zealand 2 (Darren Smith, Bevan Hari); South Korea 3 (Eun Seung Hung 2, Hyo Sik You) drew with Australia 3 (Luke Doerner, Mike McCann, Travis Brooks); Malaysia 1 (Periathamby) drew with South Africa 1 (Justin King).

Saturday's match: South Korea v Pakistan (5-35 p.m. IST).

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