It was on expected lines that it won’t be a stroll in the pitch for the Indian men’s hockey team against the South Africans, who have earned a lot of respect in the hockey world over the last twelve months or so – their 4-3 upset of Germany at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, followed by 4-3 win over New Zealand in their concluding pool tie at the 2022 Commonwealth Games are a testimony to their growing stature. South Africa have improved in leaps and bounds since losing rather tamely 2-10 on both occasions to India in the FIH Pro League in Potchefstroom earlier this year.
The 5th ranked Indians experienced the dogged determination the 13th ranked South Africans exuded – the message was loud and clear – the green-and-white brigade are not in the semifinal to make the numbers but to take the match to the Indians. The South African fight was spearheaded by their 33-year-old goalkeeper Gowan Jones, who kept stringing together saves one after another and he was the reason why the African powerhouse was on an even kneel in the opening quarter.
India broke the logjam in the second quarter when Abhishek outsmarted South African defender Mathew Guise-Brown before breaching the resolute defences of Gowan Jones of a nifty Akashdeep Singh pass from the right flank. South Africa remained unperturbed by one-goal deficit and kept moving forward with purpose but the Indian deep defence, especially Amit Rohidas, Surener Kumar and Harmanpreet Singh foiled their aspirations. India built a two-goal cushion when Mandeep Singh unsettled the South African defence with his burst of speed and fire home off a superb Gurjant Singh pass.
South Africa came hard at India in the second half and pulled one back when Ryan Julious slotted home a short corner rebound after Sreejesh churned out a brave save off a Mathew Guise-Brown drag-flick. There was an extra spring in the strides of the high-on-confidence South Africans, who put the Indian defence under the cosh but the latter absorbed all the pressure with aplomb. India was living dangerously with a 2-1 lead as South African kept mounting raids on the Indian ‘D’ but were able to keep things under control as time wore on.
Gowan Jones was taken in favour of an additional outfield player by South Africa with four minutes left for the final hooter. India made the most of the goalkeeper absence when Jugraj Singh banged home a shortie – the set-piece was awarded after Mandeep Singh was fouled by Mathew Guise-Brown, who was given the five-minute marching orders – some relief for the Indian camp who saw Mathew Guise-Brown a few moments earlier indulging in a hard tackle on Mandeep Singh but getting away without a card.
And it looked like India would leverage all their experience to run down the clock, Mustapha Cassiem sprinted down the left and unleashed a tomohawke that brooked no answer from Sreejesh, who given the significance of the occasion, for the first time played in the final quarter over the usual trend of Krishan Pathak playing in the second and fourth quarters.
This is India’s third Commonwealth Games final appearance and one hopes the Blueshirts would make it third time lucky after losing the 2010 and 2014 finals to Australia comprehensively.