Drag-flicker Harmanpreet Singh scored a brace and goalkeeper PR Sreejesh came up with some brilliant saves in the fourth quarter as India scraped through to a nervy 3-2 victory against New Zealand in a Group A encounter of the Tokyo Olympic men’s hockey competition on Saturday.
India conceded an early goal when Kane Russel scored a penalty corner in the sixth minute. They levelled the scores four minutes later when they earned a penalty stroke off their second penalty corner. Rupinderpal Singh, who struck the crossbar in the fourth minute off India’s first penalty corner, did not make any mistake and put the ball past New Zealand goalkeeper Leon Hayward.
Harmanpreet got into the act as he scored off India’s second penalty corner with a brilliant flick to the left of the goalkeeper in the 26th minute. He struck again seven minutes later off India’s third penalty corner as India went 3-1 ahead at the start of the second half.
Stephen Jenness made it 2-3 for New Zealand with an opportunistic goal in the 43rd minute. The Black Sticks created good pressure and earned three penalty corners in the fourth quarter but the Indians defended stoutly and survived the crucial period as they started their campaign on a winning note at Oi Hockey Stadium here.
It was a good performance by the Indians in a tough opener as New Zealand are a dangerous opponent. They have a good attack and a strong penalty corner exponent in Russel. The Indians had to be at their best and their solid defence, manned by Amit Rohidas and Birendra Lakra, excelled which helped them survive the Kiwi onslaught.
Sreejesh was in his element as he blocked three good efforts by New Zealand in the fourth quarter, which could have turned the flow of the game in New Zealand’s favour.
India conceded possession to the Black Sticks in the second half and survived some anxious moments.
New Zealand earned 10 penalty corners as against five by India. But it was the Indian defence that carried them to victory.
New Zealand had singled out the opening match against India as the key and wanted to get some points. It looked like they would manage it when Kane Russel put them ahead in the sixth minute.
But the Indians came back strongly to take the game away from them.
Though the defence, especially goalkeeper PR Sreejesh, stood firm, they will have to pull up their socks and tighten their midfield, which allowed the New Zealanders to launch some good attacks.
Vivek Sagar Prasad and Manpreet Singh were good in their role as attackers but the midfield left gaps that the Black Sticks managed to exploit.
However, India’s Australian coach Graham Reid would be satisfied with the result as India have always been slow starters and have found the first match tough to negotiate.
A winning start gives them the boost for their second encounter in Pool A against world No 1 Australia, who survived a scare before beating hosts Japan 5-3. Australia were trailing 2-3 at half-time but managed to come back and win their first match.