Harmanpreet’s brace guides India into hockey semifinals

Faizal Sarri equalised for Malaysia in the 16th minute.

Harmanpreet Singh celebrates with his team-mates after scoring a goal.   -  Getty Images

A win is a win, definitely. And, India did gain full points against Malaysia. But then, it was just a scrappy show that only spoke about the distance that the country has to cover in the remaining matches to that elusive gold medal in the men’s hockey competition at the XXI Commonwealth Games.

On Tuesday, in the Pool B match at the Gold Coast hockey centre, a brace from Hamanpreet Singh helped India overcome its opponent 2-1. India thus ensured its spot in the semifinals, with two wins and a draw in three matches. Against Malaysia, India has an enviable head-to-head record, but on this day the team struggled and was lucky enough to get it past its opponent which, too, had its own problems.

As far as India was concerned, the essence of the varied problems that it faced on the field was its inability to create space and press ahead, matters coming to a boil due to a floundering midfield. Secondly, the defence, too, looked shaky time and again, forcing the Indian supporters in the stands to hold their breath. Perhaps, the one man who stood out with some purpose was the crafty S. V. Sunil, to whom should also go the credit for the positive verdict that India finally gained.

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When his other colleagues were here, there and everywhere, Sunil was a shining example of hardwork and consistency, working throughout to pursue the cause of his side in diligent fashion. If only the others too were successful in joining the party, it could have been a different story altogether. Dilpreet Singh was left waiting all the time
as Mandeep Singh benefited from the solidity which Sunil displayed, working his way to the frontline and getting back swiftly to checkmate any design of a Malaysian counter attack.

All this, after India opened up with purpose in the initial stages and got to its initial lead within the first three minutes. Harmanpreet was quick to flick low off a penalty corner, leaving the Malaysian custodian, Hairi Rahman, helpless as the ball went through his right.

The story stayed that way for a full 13 minutes before Malaysia surprised its rival by levelling the scores. Tragically, it was a mistake by Sunil, missing out a high ball, that gave Malaysia this opportunity to score through Faizal Saari, who darted in unchecked,
drew out Rupinder Pal Singh and then sold a dummy to P. R. Sreejesh before slotting in.

The game pattern remained the same until the start of the third quarter. Action picked up pace after the Indians showed some urgency. A sequence of penalty corners was forced after Sunil put Mandeep through and was impeded inside the circle. Utilising this opportune moment, Harmanpreet was at it again to help India back into the lead, with a rousing shot that took the top corner of the Malaysian net.

India will play England in its last league match on Wednesday to decide the group topper.

Later in the day, the Indian women’s team too made the last four grade, defeating South Africa in its last Pool A match a solitary goal. The winner came through captain Rani Ramphal in the 47th minute of play. It was a close match and though both the sides had their chances, none was converted either through poor finishing or saves effected by the goalkeepers.

But it all changed in favour of the Indians when Vandana put her skipper with a beauty of a pass and Rani converted it skilfully. The win helped India to finish its engagements with nine points, on a par with England, which, however, took the top spot with a better goal difference.

It was a remarkable comeback by the Indian team which was forced to bite the dust by Wales in its opening match. It could be either New Zealand or Australia in the semifinals as the Pool B matches will be completed only on Wednesday.