The Indian women’s hockey team created history as it punched well above its weight to produce a defensive masterclass to beat world number 2 Australia and storm into the semifinal of the Tokyo Olympics.
Its triumph at the Oi Hockey Stadium here meant euphoria for all Indians back home as the girls continued their fairytale run and joined the men’s team in the last four stage. The women, on Wednesday, will face Argentina, which beat Germany 3-0.
The Aussies – table toppers in pool A – served India an early warning as Ambrosia Malone hit the post in the second minute. The Indian defence recovered from the initial blip and grew in confidence as Gurjit Kaur and Monika kept the opposition attack at bay. Savita Punia enjoyed a fantastic outing in goal, coming up with nine campaign-extending saves.
Rani Rampal, the skipper of the team, came close to putting her side ahead in the ninth minute when she parried Vandana Katariya’s pass but was denied by the post. The first penalty corner of the game came in the 20th minute when Nisha was penalised for a push on Ambrosia. The defence was up to the task as it blocked three attempts and India went on to take the lead two minutes later.
Gurjit Kaur, who had failed to convert her last nine penalty corner attempts, rose to the occasion when it mattered, and her fierce drag-flick went between a defender’s legs and took a touch off another’s stick before nestling into the bottom of the goal. Gurjit looked up and raised her fist in celebration, the pressure was finally off her and her side had drawn first blood.
Salima Tete made a scintillating run shortly after and skipped past two defenders but failed to keep her attempt on target. The momentum had slowly shifted in India’s favour and Australia was struggling to get a hold of the ball.
When Australia did have the ball, it failed to produce anything special. It had three successive penalty corners from the 33rd minute but tried a few too many variations and let the chances slip away. When the Aussies managed to get a shot on goal, Savita was blocking their way.
Australia was running out of moves.
This phase of play in the 40th minute summed up its attack – Brooke Peris made a long surging run into the circle and had a teammate waiting on her left, but a lack of communication and coordination saw her pass sail out of play. The Aussies were frustrated and worn out, and it was time for India to close out the game.
Australia, the three-time Olympic champion, fought tooth and nail in the final quarter. It won a penalty corner in the 51st minute that was saved by Savita and Monika made a goal-line block the next minute as India absorbed the pressure. The tension in the camp increased as Australia won two more penalty corners in the 56th and 57th minutes but Savita used her boot to save the first and sprawled on the turf to save the second. The girls moved into the medal round for the first time since finishing fourth in 1980, which was played in a round-robin format.
Coach Sjoerd Marjne had earlier said that his side’s defence needed to turn up and they did so in style, keeping a clean sheet against the Aussies who had scored 13 goals in the group stages.
It was a win for centuries, a win for posterity and a win for the sport in the country.