India have had to wait a while, but they brought the defending Pro League champions Australia down with a 3-1 win on shootout, after tying the 60 minutes 2-2, in a thrilling game at the Kalinga Stadium, Bhubaneswar. India last beat Australia in an official Test match in Bendigo, Australia in November 2016, 1180 days ago.
Graham Reid's men managed to convert a backs-to-the-wall start to one where they shaded the numbers and then put in a flawless shootout performance to hand Australia their first defeat of this campaign, and pull level on points with them.
Weathering the early Australian storm
Australia, who had led 4-1 at one stage in the opening game on Friday, but then allowed India a late flourish and almost conceded an equaliser late in the match, came out of their dugout with attack on their minds.
PR Sreejesh, starting in place of Krishan Pathak for this game, pulled his weight in a good performance in goal. Sreejesh actually kept a clean sheet in regulation time on the night (he alternated with Pathak quarter-wise), though he was a touch lucky that Australia missed a penalty stroke in the third quarter. More on India's rub of the green later.
Nerveless midfield and incisive short corners
India fielded a pretty young attack and midfield on the night -- regulars like Mandeep Singh, Akashdeep Singh, SV Sunil and Kothajit Singh were all missing. Up stepped younger players like Gursahibjit Singh, Raj Kumar Pal and Vivek Sagar Prasad, all between their first and third years in international hockey, and came up with crucial interventions at either end.
They had their moments of weakness, such as Raj Kumar conceding a green card soon after captain Manpreet was shown one. On another occasion, young striker Gursahibjit chose to attack Australian goalkeeper Tyler Lovell's near post, when Ramandeep Singh delayed releasing a flat pass from the right hoping for someone to get at the end of it on the far post. However, these are rookie errors, easily corrected.
And then there's the short corner battery of Rupinder Pal Singh and Harmanpreet Singh. The two are actually the weakest links in defence, with some embarrassing mis-passes right through this campaign. But they more than make up when India find a foot in the door at the other end through penalty corners (PCs). Australia had nine PCs, and couldn't score. India scored from two of their first three, and from then on, Australia went from leading the game to chasing it until the final quarter.
Luck played a small, but decisive role
Australia actually had two goals ruled out, and the second one came after India had lost their sole referral in the first half. On one occasion, Sreejesh made an excellent call against an obstruction, when he was beaten under his right arm off a PC. The second was a slap deemed dangerous, when one of the umpires referred a decision -- the replays showing the ball had risen dangerously to hit Manpreet on the back of his hamstring as he rushed down the shot.
Australia missed one stroke in regulation time, and one in the shootout. While coach Colin Batch won't be unduly worried about the lack of calmness on these occasions -- Australia themselves brought a generous mix of youth among experienced hands to Bhubaneswar -- what stood out in the shootout was India's tactical nous.
In goal, Sreejesh did everything he could to upset the opposition forwards, happy in the knowledge that a foul would only bring a risk-reward of a penalty stroke for Australia. They scored one, and missed one, but it was a chance Sreejesh was willing to take.
India themselves were much more clear-headed and sure-footed. Harmanpreet, Vivek and Lalit Upadhyay all took Lovell away to his left, and then created a narrow angle from which to smash the ball home inside the eight seconds.
On a night when they evenly shared possession percentages and had 16 shots between each other, India played the big moments a touch better than Australia and buried any unpleasant memories of finding the champions a tough team to overcome in big tournaments.