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Mervyn Fernandis

Indians choked at the crunch

August 20, 2004

India has made it a habit of conceding a goal in the dying seconds of a game. They repeated the 'feat' against Australia on Thursday and went down 3-4 after coming back from two goals down in the crucial men's Group B Olympic hockey match.

In doing so they frittered a wonderful opportunity of grabbing a valuable point that would have helped them stake claim for a semi-final berth.

Having lost six points after three games they can now only hope for a miracle to get them to the last four stage.

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Images from Thursday's matches

India started in great fashion and scored through a deflection from Deepak Thakur following a slap shot across the goal by Harpal Singh in the sixth minute. Then they had a good chance to surge ahead when Gagan Ajit Singh's rasping shot rebounded of the Australian goalkeeper and fell in front of Prabhjot Singh, but the last-named fumbled and wasted the chance.

Prabhjot was a disappointment. In fact, he has done nothing worth the mention in all the three matches India has played. On Friday, he made a mess of good passes on at least four occasions. To have an experienced forward not performing to potential in a crucial match is detrimental to the chances of a team. Certainly, it must be a big blow to the Indian camp what with the other two strike forwards Gagan Ajit and Deepak Thakur too struggling to combine well.

Australia leveled at 1-1 following a melee in the circle where William Xalco's rather weak clearance went straight to Troy Elder, who made no mistake with a powerful hit from an uncovered angle that gave goalkeeper Adrian D'Souza no chance.

If the first half saw an unusually subdued Aussie team, full credit must be given to the Indian deep defence and half-backs for checking the marauding Aussies forwards.

The dangerous Jamie Dwyer, the tournament's leading scorer, had a rather quiet first half as he was not given the space to break through by Dilip Tirkey, Vikram Pillay and Viren Rasquinha, who all three had an outstanding match. Viren, in particular, was the driving force behind the team, diving and throwing himself desperately to cut off every possible move initiated by the Aussies.

But Dwyer began the second half scoring a beauty of a goal with a rasping drive to the roof of the net to make it 2-1 within four minutes from the restart. The goal was a result of some sloppy defending. The Australians quickly increased their lead through Michael McCann and it looked as if the game had slipped out the hands of the Indians.

With another defeat staring in the face there was a sudden change in the Indians' game. They released the ball quickly and pressed for goal. Once again a slap shot across the circle by Harpal was deftly deflected into goal by Gagan Ajit to reduce the margin to 2-3. Then Vikram Pillay, who had an excellent outing, dribbled his way into the opposing half and laid a pass to Dhanraj, who in turn relayed the ball to Gagan, who squared to Arjun Hallapa to level the score 3-3. It was a pleasing move by the Indians under the circumstances.

After the two quick goals, it appeared as if the Indians would score again or at least snatch a point in a draw. But disaster struck in the last seven minutes, when Dhan was given the yellow card by South African umpire John Wright for an infringement. The decision seemed very harsh considering there were deliberate infringements by the Aussies that he chose to overlook.

It is difficult to understand how the Technical Director listed an umpire whose country is in the same pool as the Indians to officiate the game. I am sure there are other umpires from countries that do not belong to India's pool who could have officiated. Besides, the other umpire was Henrik Ehlers from Denmark. Yes, Denmark.

Playing one man short is always a disadvantage. The Indians chose to scoop the ball in the opposite half to release the pressure. But they have to realize that they have to scoop in vacant spaces.  Instead, they repeatedly scooped the ball to our forwards who were hemmed in by the Aussie defenders. It led to dangerous play, and off the resultant counter move the Indian defence was caught napping as the Aussies went on to score the winner in the last 20 seconds of the game.

Australia's fourth goal was again the outcome of some sloppy defending and poor trapping. If one looks back, poor defending brought about our downfall. All four of Australia's goals came from swift counter moves with the Indian defence failing to trap cleanly.

That was the difference between defeat and victory. The Indians choked atthe crunch and lost a golden opportunity to strengthen its position for a semi-final berth.

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Mervyn Fernandis represented India at the 1980, '84 and '88 Olympics. He also captained India at the junior World Cup in Versailles, France, in 1979.

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