There was almost an air of inevitability to it when Nathan Ephraums scored from close range in a goalmouth scramble following a drag flick struck by Jeremy Hayward. With a couple of seconds north of a minute remaining in the third hockey Test match between India and Australia in Sydney, the host had levelled the score 3-3.
That it seemed inevitable wasn’t just due to the pressure and physicality Australia was enforcing on India in the final minutes of their encounter, relentlessly grinding down the Indian defence despite PR Sreejesh’s best efforts in the Indian goal. It was because it was Australia, and this was India.
Different generations of Indian players would have their stories to share about just how hard it is to beat Australia. This generation certainly would have a few. It had been six years since an Indian hockey team had last beaten Australia in regulation time – in a Test series in Australia on November 29, 2016.
Thirteen winless matches against the World’s number one side had passed since then. However undeniable India’s improvements as a hockey team had been over this period – capped by a historic bronze at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics – the Australians always seemed a step ahead. The scale of some of the defeats – the 7-0 hiding in the final of the Commonwealth Games and a 7-1 loss at the Olympics a year earlier – might even be considered embarrassing. And while there had been times India had come close – it had, for instance, held Australia 2-2 in the Pro League last year – it had never been able to completely shut the door. In the first match of this series, India had looked to come out with a draw when it had equalised 4-4 in the penultimate minute of the game. But Blake Govers scored off a penalty corner with the last play of the game.
That’s how the spectators watching must have felt the game would end. The wait was going to go on. Yet just when it seemed the winless streak would extend to 14 matches and enter its seventh year, India caught a break. A long-range rocket of a pass from Hardik Singh just outside the 25-yard line scooted past everyone in the midfield and found Manpreet Singh lurking just outside the Australian striking circle. He, in turn, passed it horizontally to Akashdeep, who made no mistake with a low strike to the left of Australian keeper Johan Durst.
It’s hard to say how much can be extrapolated from this win. Like the 2016 victory, this came in a bilateral series with little at stake. These encounters are almost for testing tactics and giving playing time – both sides played two goalkeepers playing alternate quarters.
Yet there’s much for India to be satisfied with. Harmanpreet Singh scored his third and fourth penalty corner goals in the three matches of the series so far, cementing his status as India’s best exponent of the drag flick. The fact that India has scored four goals in each of its matches – including the losses – suggests this team is capable of finding the back of the net even against an opponent like Australia.
India had struggled in its first couple of games in limiting the offense of a high-pressing team like Australia. Over just the last four matches played between the two teams, India had conceded 26 goals (1-7 at the Olympics, 0-7 at the Commonwealth Games and 4-5 and 4-7 in the first couple of games of the Test series). That it only gave away three on Wednesday, was thanks to the efforts of its backline. Sreejesh, in particular, had one of his best games in recent times, saving two penalty corners in the final quarter alone. While the veteran looked at his best, Krishan Pathak had an impressive game as well, preventing Australia from going a goal up in the eighth minute of the game with two point-blank saves.
The fact that both goalkeepers came good would probably give some happy headaches for coach Graham Reid who’s undoubtedly using the series as a buildup to the World Cup in January.
But while the keepers had a strong game, and Harmanpreet’s penalty corner conversion was as good as ever, Reid admitted there were areas to improve on. “While our PC conversion rate was good, we probably still gave them too many opportunities (Australia earned eight PCs of its own) and relied a little bit too much on our goalkeeper. Having said that, sometimes it is good to graft out a win and I think that’s what the team did. We fought hard, and it was a good character-building game for us ahead of the World Cup in January” he was quoted as saying by Hockey India.
But while Reid’s desire to keep the win in perspective is understandable, the average fan can certainly take joy in the result. “We must always celebrate a win against the Aussies just coz it is so hard and so rare for us,” former Indian skipper Viren Rasquinha posted on Twitter.
Perhaps the most credible praise though came from Australia itself. Having hardly been tested in recent times, Aussie coach Colin Batch admitted his team had been pushed hard. “India definitely turned up. It was a hard-fought game. We learned a lot from it. It’s a good lesson for us,” he said after the game.
Batch knows his team is in for a fight in the last couple of matches of the series that will be played over the weekend. If India performs at this level, it certainly won’t have to go through another six-year winless spell again.