India in Asian Champions Trophy hockey final
Ordos (China): India staged a remarkable fightback to hold Pakistan to a 2-2 draw in their last league match before depending on Malaysia's heroics to set up a summit showdown with their arch rivals in the Asian Champions Trophy hockey tournament.
While the 2-2 draw was enough to give Pakistan a berth in the final, India's passage came only because Malaysia came from the dead to beat Japan 3-2 in their last league game. Malaysia was required to get the better of Japan to help India reach the final.
Unbeaten in the tournament, India dominated the barren first half but conceded two goals in two minutes to trail 0-2 by the 42nd minute only to come from behind to draw the match under chilly and windy conditions.
Pakistan took a 2-0 lead through Muhammad Waqas (40th minute) and Muhammad Irfan (42nd) but India responded immediately with Rupinder (46th) finding the target from an indirect penalty corner while Danish Mujtaba scored the equaliser in the 53rd minute.
Pakistan on 10 points and India with 9 points will battle for supremacy in the final on Sunday. Japan and Malaysia will now again play for the 3rd/4th position as they finished on an identical seven points.
Korea will play China for the 5th/6th position. Korea has seven points but an inferior goal difference (-1) pushed them down the table.
The India-Pakistan clash turned out to be a thriller as both teams played their hearts out.
Mujtaba's equaliser, a deflection from his stick, was a tad controversial as New Zealand umpire Simon Taylor did not initially award a goal. But the Indians appealed and the South Korean umpire, after consultations with Taylor, let the goal stand.
Under seven degree temperature and chilly wind blowing, both India and Pakistan started off slowly testing each other on the flanks and in the midfield. No quarter was given by both the sides in the first five minutes.
Slowly India increased the tempo as the right flank stretched the Pakistan defence creating openings in the centre. Danish Mujtaba, Gurwinder Singh Chandi, Ravi Pal and Sunil sent some perfect crosses into the Pakistan striking circle.
But the forwards were either bunched up or not in the file where they could have latched onto the cross. Once captain Rajpal Singh sped down the right flank but Yuvraj Walmiki and Sunil stood together and could not pick up the cross that beat the Pakistan goalkeeper Imran Shah.
The Indian midfield was outstanding except a few errors that came under pressure. Ravi Pal and especially Gurbaj Singh were the players who kept the Pakistan defence under pressure.
If there was a man-of-the-match, it should have been Gurbaz who played defensive hockey and when the need arose kept the right flank and the forwards well fed with through balls.
India's penalty corner weakness was again exposed when they had two in succession in the 20th and 21st minutes but both were way off target. It was critical to hit the corners of the net but for some reason Rupinder Pal and Raghunath went for the middle and straight to the Pakistani goalkeeper who saved them effortlessly.
In the 23rd minute, Pakistan had their first look at the Indian goal when Shafqat Rasool found himself face-to-face with Bharat Chettri in the Indian goal. Shafqat shot straight to Bharat who padded it away to safety.
At the break, both the teams were locked goalless.
Five minutes after resumption, Waseem Ahmed intercepted an Indian move and won an infringement just outside the Indian striking circle. His cross into the circle went straight to an unmarked Muhammad Waqas. The Pakistan striker had enough time to send in a first timer that beat Indian goalkeeper Chhetri. It was India's first defensive lapse and they paid heavily.
Two minutes later, Shakeel Abassi and a host of Pakistan forwards moved in and won Pakistan's first penalty corner.
Muhammad Irfan sent a flyer into the right corner of the net to notch up Pakistan's second goal.
India fought back as Sunil and Mujtaba sped into the Pakistan striking circle and won their third penalty corner of the match. It seemed doomed to fail when Ignace Tirkey could not to stop the ball cleanly but he had enough presence of mind to tap it for Mujtaba who sent a perfect cross for Rupinder to whack the ball into the Pakistan goal.
With the scoreline cut to 1-2, India were back in the match as they attacked with renewed energy. They were egged on by the women's hockey team and also by the Indian Ambassador to China who had flown into Ordos for the match.
As the match progressed, the field got spread out with Pakistan looking to build on the lead while India searched desperately for the equaliser.
India had an opening in the 53rd minute when Manjit Kullu sent a full-blooded cross into the Pakistan striking circle.
Danish Mujtaba with his back to the Pakistan goal touched it with his stick and it sped into the Pakistan goal. The Indians celebrated but to their dismay the Kiwi umpire Simon Taylor pointed for a free hit to Pakistan.
The Indian players immediately protested with Mujtaba saying he had deflected the ball in. Simon went to the Korean umpire You Su Long and checked with him and after a minute of consultation awarded the goal to India. Pakistan did protest but Simon pointed to the centre for the match to begin.
The match was now getting bottled up in the midfield as both the teams were cautious in making moves. Man-to-man marking took over. Pakistan seemed more relaxed but the
Indians did not want to lose and give away their fight for a place in the final.
India had their fourth penalty corner in the 59th minute but Rupinder Pal Singh again went through the middle as the Pakistan rusher took the flick on the stick.
With eight minutes left in the match, Pakistan had a sitter when Abdul Haseem Khan trapped in front of the Indian goal and with Chettri caught on the wrong side sent the ball over the cross bar.
With time running out, Pakistan played safe as a draw was enough for them to reach the final.
Indian coach Michael Nobbs rued that his side would have won had they converted the penalty corners.
"Penalty corners let us down but the boys would have learnt from this high pressure match and I hope we get another match with them in the final," said Nobbs.