Olympic bronze medalist India secured a hard-fought 3-2 win over South Africa to qualify for the Commonwealth Games men’s hockey final here on Saturday. Abhishek (20th minute), Mandeep Singh (28th) and Jugraj Singh (58th) scored for India, while South Africa’s goals came from the sticks of Ryan Julius (33rd) and Mustapha Cassiem (59th). Judging by form and ranking, it was expected to be a cinch for India, but it turned out not to be, courtesy of South African custodian Gowan Jones, who performed a superlative under the bar.
Had it not been for Jones’ brilliant performance, the backlog could have been much greater in the Indians’ favor.
The Indians were on the offensive from the start and dominated for most of the first two quarters.
India had plenty of circle penetrations and chances in the first quarter, but goals eluded them with Jones rocking in front of the goal.
He barred Indian star drag-flicker Harmanpreet Singh from converting a whopping four penalty corners in the first half to keep his side in the game.
Jones’ anticipation and reflexes were a joy to watch as he won save after save.
Not just penalty corners, Jones was also solid for goal from open play, holding off Shamsher Singh’s effort from close range in the 10th minute after being set by Akashdeep Singh.
Seconds later, Jones made another stunning reflex to deny Akashdeep.
South Africa seemed to have some rhythm in the second quarter, delivering three penalty corners in quick succession, but India’s reserve goalkeeper Krishan Bahadur Pathak was up to the task.
The stalemate finally broke in the 20th minute when Abhishek scored with a crushing reverse hit from the top of the circle to eventually beat Jones.
Minutes later, Jones came to his rescue again, blocking Amit Rohidas’ fierce shot, then stopping Akashdeep’s reverse shot.
But the Indian team doubled their lead in the 28th minute via Mandeep, who scored a fine goal after being fed by Gurjant Singh. India secured another penalty corner two minutes after the change of half, but lost it.
South Africa seemed more determined after the half change, narrowing the margin three minutes after the restart via Julius who scored from a rebound from a penalty corner.
Jones was on top form when he delivered another fine save on Abhishek in the 38th minute.
South Africa would not stall as they occasionally invaded the Indian circle and secured some penalty corners, but failed to break through the defence.
In the 41st minute, Jones made another brilliant save to fend off Jarmanpreet Singh’s attempt from India’s sixth set piece.
In the last quarter, India tried to play the possession game and concentrated on defense as South Africa pushed hard.
India’s trick worked perfectly as they managed to hold onto South Africa’s forward press.
With four minutes to go, South Jones pulled back and India seized the opportunity to extend their lead with Jugraj hitting home from a penalty corner.
The Africans threatened India when Cassiem scored with a reverse hit to make it 3-2.
However, the Indians managed to hold onto their lead and secure a final berth after the 2014 edition, where they came second to Australia.
India will face the winner of the second semi-final between Australia and England in the final on Sunday. PTI SSC SSC KHS KHS
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