A ground-bisecting pass from captain Manpreet Singh on the left, a fluid one-touch pass ahead from Lalit Upadhyay and a diving, stumbling reverse shot from Mandeep Singh that stuck the board in the 20th minute. It was one of the many moments of brilliance executed by the Indians but the only one that mattered as the host began its campaign in the Hockey World League finals with a 1-1 draw against defending champion Australia here on Friday.
It was a match India should have won. It was a match where the sixth-ranked team in the world had the World No. 2 side on the backfoot for a good half hour – the first and last quarters – and relentlessly pressed ahead, created chances by the dozen and restricted Australia to its own half. “We conceded too many turnovers on the 30-yard line, that is something we need to work on,” captain Mark Knowles admitted.
It was more than just that. The Indian midfield was exceptional, marshalled by Manpreet who clearly was the best player on display.
Diving, leaping, changing directions and moving ends, he was everywhere. Feeding the strikers, distributing the ball, disrupting the Australian moves, he did everything. The captain was clearly on a mission in his 200th international.
He just couldn’t find the personnel upfront to make the most of his efforts. Akashdeep Singh, Mandeep and Gurjant all misfired, hitting wide. Four penalty corners were earned but all went waste. SV Sunil and Sumit stood out for their crosses from either flank but the team missed the finishing touches. And the defence, with two men returning from injuries and the others inexperienced, held up firm despite repeated assaults.
Australia, though, would feel lucky to escape with a draw. It did push in the middle two quarters and earned as many as six PCs but could convert only one and hardly created any open chances. “It was quite an experience for the newcomers to play in front of this kind of crowd. There were a few missings but just the first match, things need sharpening up,” Australia coach Colin Batch said.
The result may not really matter in the larger scheme of things. With all eight teams playing the quarterfinals, everyone would get a second chance and that would be the stage when things would start getting serious. But it would be the missing elements that would concern the team more.
“The result may not be that important but it matters. If we do not score now, after taking the upper hand against the World No. 2 and dominating them, then it will be even more difficult in the later stages. Momentum needs to be built up from the beginning,” admitted Sunil.
THE RESULT: India 1 (Mandeep Singh) drew with Australia 1 (Jeremy Hayward).