November 29, 2016 to November 30, 2022. Indian senior men’s wait for a win against the mighty Australia was long. In between, there was a Pro League encounter in Odisha that saw India hold Australia for a 2-2 draw and prevail in the shootout for a bonus point. But it wasn’t an outright win.
The wait was not only long... it was rather painful too. A 7-1 defeat against the Kookaburras at the Tokyo Olympics was a low point (but also a turning point as India recovered well to win bronze). A 7-0 defeat against the Kookaburras at the Birmingham Commonwealth Games final was tough to swallow for everyone concerned, especially because the evening began with hope. In the first two matches of the ongoing Test series in Adelaide, India had lost 4-5 and 4-7... closer matches for sure, but heartbreaks nevertheless.
In the last four matches against the Kookaburras, India had conceded a total of 26 goals. So, if they had to end the winless run – like a good-old field goal – it had to start at the back and finish with the forwards.
And so PR Sreejesh and a moment of late brilliance from a trio of Indian players saw the wait end in Adelaide on Wednesday, as India defeated Australia 4-3 in a thriller.
Since the end of the CWG final and the matches so far this season, there were a few murmurs around PR Sreejesh. It was a combination of the Indian veteran not having the best of times in the first mini-tournament in the FIH Pro League in Odisha and Krishan Pathak, for long his understudy, stepping up. Is Sreejesh still the first-choice for the World Cup in January?
He came up with one of his best performances, arguably his best since the famous afternoon in Tokyo, to repeatedly keep Australian forwards at bay in Adelaide. Playing the second and fourth quarters in rotation with Pathak, Sreejesh produced moments of elite quality between the posts. In Q2, there was a series of saves (a triple-save, it looked like) to keep the score 1-0 and another stunning save followed that before eventually Australia got on the board. In Q4, with the clock running down, Sreejesh struck his right foot out and performed a split as Jeremy Hayward struck one fiercely.
Well, as the man told Scroll.in in an interview recently, the years of highs and lows has taught him to pick up after a bad day and move on. “When I compare with my younger days, I always laugh thinking about all the blunders I used to do in my earlier stage,” he had said. “That is how you change and you develop yourself at every opportunity. Every time you get a platform to sharpen yourself. So yes, I always feel like over the years I have become a better goalkeeper. I never say I am a great goalkeeper but all the opportunities help me become a better version of the previous me.”
So, having conceded a bagful of goals in the last few meetings, India kept Australia to three goals only in this match and Sreejesh played a big role in that, with due credit to some tight defending throughout the match. As Graham Reid said after the match, 1-1 at half time was an indication of how tight things were.
A late moment of brilliance
Even on their off-days and even in the absence of the talismanic Blake Govers for more than half the match, you cannot rule out Australia scoring late. They are relentless... it is what makes them so good. On most days, they don’t sit back and defend deep, they weren’t going to do so when trailing with minutes left. So despite that aforementioned piece of brilliance by Sreejesh, India conceded to a close-range finish from Nathan Ephraums in the 59th minute.
While the replays were being shown, and just around a minute left in the match, India placed the ball on the centre-circle with scoreboard reading 3-3. The wait was going to extend. It’s been 14 matches and six years... and they were a minute away from holding a lead. It was set to be another heartbreak.
Mandeep Singh pushed the ball back to Hardik Singh, playing in defence. He is no stranger to playing in the back-line. Before Harendra Singh turned him into a midfielder, and now an excellent one at that, he used to play as a defender. And from deep in India’s half, he took a touch on the ball and shifted it to his left. There didn’t seem to be too much happening in front of him in the midfield, so he went long. With a stunning reverse pass that went from one end of the field to the other, he found Mandeep Singh who had made his way from the center-circle to the final third. He controlled the ball instantaneously and fed the ball down the left channel into the empty space where he had spotted Akashdeep Singh’s run. It was a selfless piece of play and it set up the No 27 for a free shot at goal. There was still work to be done but the man who has found his scoring touch back in Australia, found the corner with a precise finish.
Less than a minute to go, India had retaken the lead and Akashdeep Singh stood beyond the byline with hands folded and looking up at the sky, as the setting sun shined on him.
“It was a better defensive effort today. We put up a good fight back on a couple of occasions,” coach Graham Reid was quoted as saying by Hockey India after the match.
“While our PC conversion rate was good, we probably still gave them too many opportunities 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 today. We fought hard and it was a good character-building game for us ahead of the World Cup in January,” Reid added.
And so ended a long wait for India and the series came alive. After two fantastic matches to start the five-Test contest, India needed to show something for their efforts more than just fight and determination. They needed to take something tangible out of this.
The results, as we have maintained through this series, don’t matter as much as performances with the team preparing for a home World Cup... but a win against Australia in any way, shape or form, is a big confidence-booster. This Indian team has shown a happy habit of scoring late in matches (even if conceding late is a habit that won’t go away easily) and with three goals in Q4 (Abhishek, Shamsher Singh and Akashdeep) they ended on the right side of the result against the world No 1.