New Delhi: India’s men’s team began its preparation for the Olympic hockey qualifiers with an emphatic 4-0 win in first match of the five-Test series against South Africa here at the Major Dhyan Chand National Stadium on Monday.
India, who are taking this series as selection trials for the Olympic qualifiers in February, displayed the brand of attacking hockey associated with them. South Africa, who did show some teeth using both the flanks in the second half, couldn’t match India’s attacking forward line which exposed gaps in the visitors’ defence.
Defender Harbir Singh and striker SK Uthappa made their debut, with Shivender Singh, Birender Lakra, skipper Sardar Singh and Uthappa sounding the board for India.
The hosts earned their first penalty corner (PC) in the 13th minute but made a hash of it, failing to stop the push cleanly. However, the hosts got on the scoreboard in the 15th minute through Shivender, who was left unmarked in the attacking circle after Manpreet Singh intercepted South Africa’s 16-yard hit and passed it onto Shivender on top of the circle.
South Africa had a couple of chances, largely from centre-forward Hykes Julian’s pace, but couldn’t breach goalkeeper PR Sreejesh’s guard.
India continuously raided their opponent's half with incisive moves from both the flanks but couldn’t convert those into goals. Once it was Chingelnsana Singh who missed in the 19th minute and then Sandeep drag-flicked wide off India’s second PC in the 20th minute.
India scored twice in the next 10 minutes. First it was nice coordination between Manpreet, Tushar Khandekar and Lakra down the left which broke South Africa’s defence. The final touch of the move from Lakra gave India their second goal.
Sardar made it 3-0 in the 28th when another bad clearance by South Africa gave India the ball and the move down the centre gave Sardar his first goal in almost four years.
The second half saw the visitors adding some sharpness to their build-ups through their wingers. They came close to scoring in the 38th minute but the shot went wide off the right post.
South Africa’s improved second-half almost cost India a goal but for Sreejesh who came up with a couple of reflex saves.
SV Sunil, Khandekar and Chingelnsana kept raiding from the flanks, but the final pass of the move mostly went wide, costing India some scoring opportunities. The fourth goal finally arrived in the 52nd minute, this time from debutant Uthappa’s stick, who sounded the board after VS Vinay dodged two defenders before making the assist.
South Africa earner their two PCs as late as the 57th and 65th minute but full-back Jonathan Robinson was denied on both the occasions by Sreejesh, who had a terrific match.
India coach, Michael Nobbs sounded pretty relaxed in the post-match conference, stating winning was not as important as getting the combination right for the all-important Olympic qualifiers.
“We could have scored seven or eight goals, but the score-line is not important. At present, out focus is to get to a combination that can help India qualify for the Olympics.”
South Africa coach Gregg Clark rued the chances missed and was concerned about the “lack of penalty corners”.
“India were the better side but the lack of penalty corners and some lapses in the defence hurt us badly.”
Earlier in the day, the Indian women team continued their winning run as they beat Azerbaijan 2-1 in the second Test played at the same venue.