New Delhi: India almost moved out of the race to reach the final of the 27th Sultan Azlan Shah Cup hockey tournament after losing 2-4 to reigning world champions Australia on Tuesday, thereby remaining winless in three matches so far. Ramandeep Singh (52nd and 53rd minutes) scored twice for India after Australia were 4-0 up, thanks to Mark Knowles (28th minute, penalty stroke), Aran Zalewski (35th), Daniel Beale (41st) and Blake Govers (43rd, penalty corner) as the world No.1 side registered its third consecutive victory.
India, who lost to Argentina in the opening match before playing a 1-1 draw with England, faced a must-win situation against the mighty Australian side.
Aware of India’s counter-attacking strength, Australia kept their defensive structure tight as the current Asian champions applied pressure.
A golden opportunity was lost for India when a swift assist from Ramandeep Singh to Shilanand Lakra could not make it past Australian goalkeeper Andrew Charter in the eighth minute. Though the rebound was taken by Sumit, his shot on goal went wide.
After surviving the early pressure, Australia opened up play and pressed high, applying pressure on the Indian midfield at the Azlan Shah Stadium.
Australia gained momentum and an incursion into the Indian box saw Beale’s shot hitting the foot of Mandeep Mor who was even behind the goalkeeper. It resulted in a penalty stroke which was converted by Australian skipper Knowlesin the 28th minute.
With seconds before the close of second quarter, India could have equalise but drag-flicker Varun Kumar’s shot rebounded off the right post.
Australia upped the ante in the third quarter which saw them scoring thrice, putting the game beyond doubt.
Tom Craig made a superb pass from the left baseline and Aran Zalewski stunned the Indian defence as he dived forward to connect the ball and push the ball in in the 35th minute.
Australian built on their lead and dominated the proceedings, keeping the ball for longer stints finding space in the Indian circle.
Beale made it 3-0 in the 41st minute as he tapped in a rebound off goalkeeper Suraj Kerkera from close range as Mandeep and Surender Kumar failed to clear the ball.
Three minutes later, Blake had his drag-flick being pushed away by Karkera but the ball fell in front of him. Blake then fired a grounder that found the space between Karkera’s legs to the net, giving Australia 4-0 lead.
The final quarter saw India vie for a great comeback with Ramandeep scoring two back-to-back goals in two minutes, giving India slim hopes.
Ramandeep’s cross from byline for Sumit Kumar, lurking in front of the Australian goal-post, was guided in by defender Jeremy Hayward in the 51st minute.
A minute later, Nilankanta Sharma fed Ramandeep, who from the top of the circle, beat goalkeeper Andrew Charter with a fierce backhander to reduce the deficit to two.
Though the late surge boosted the team’s attack, as they won a penalty corner in the dying minutes of the match, a miss trapping dented their chance.
They lost for the second time in three matches. Sjoerd Marijne-coached India are fifth in the table with a point.
In the other matches of the day, England outplayed Ireland to jump to the fourth spot with four points, while Malaysia upset Olympic champions Argentina 2-1 to jump to the second spot with six points — same as Argentina but ahead due to the win.
India will face hosts Malaysia in a tricky encounter.
(With PTI inputs).