For quite some time, India’s biggest nightmare is the prospect of PR Sreejesh, the captain and goalkeeper, getting injured in the middle of a tournament or just before a big event. Such is the team’s reliance on its captain that in his absence, it’s feared that the team will crumble because there is no dependable back-up. On Tuesday, their worst fears came true. Sreejesh limped off in the 13th minute with a twisted knee following a collision with Australian forward Tom Craig. Akash Chikte replaced him but conceded three goals, resulting in India losing 3-1 in the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup in Ipoh, Malaysia.
The win ensured Australia’s spot in Saturday’s final but India, placed third, will have to win all their matches and hope second-placed Britain lose at least one of the two remaining group stage matches. Going by their performance on Tuesday, India will hope Sreejesh will be back in the goal for their last two matches against Japan on Wednesday and final round-robin encounter against hosts Malaysia on Friday. The team management did not look overtly worried about Sreejesh’s condition.
Oltmans said the seriousness of the injury could be gauged only after an X-Ray, which was scheduled for late on Tuesday. “It’s a right knee injury. We’re yet to see what exactly it is. We have not gone for X-ray yet,” the coach said,” Oltmans said.
Sreejesh, true to his happy-go-lucky self, joked and laughed as he hobbled around the ground after the match. But the pensive look on Chikte’s face told the story. Chikte, who was the number one goalie last year at Azlan Shah after Sreejesh was rested, wasn’t even in the in the squad this time round.
In his quest to find a reliable back-up to Sreejesh, Oltmans has been trying various goalkeepers for the last two years. This time, he chose young Suraj Karkera. But days before the team left for Ipoh, Karkera injured himself, opening the door for Chikte.
He, however, had been warming the bench and it looked that way even on Tuesday until the 13th minute. Trying to deal with a diagonal ball played inside the ‘D’, Sreejesh lunged forward and collided with a diving Craig. In the process, Sreejesh twisted in knee and looked in pain as he left the field.
That did not have an immediate impact on rest of the team. Sardar Singh showed glimpses of his old self in the midfield while youngster Pardeep Mor, playing on the right flank, troubled Australian defence with his diagonal passes inside the ‘D’. India, who were on par with Australia in the opening two quarters, took the lead via a rare field goal by Harmanpreet Singh in the 26th minute.
But it went downhill from there. And that’s when India missed Sreejesh the most. Australia scored three goals – one at the near post, another one through Chikte’s legs and the third hitting his glove and crossing the line. Australia’s equaliser came seconds before half time. Chikte palmed away an Australian penalty corner shot before Ockenden deflected in a long diagonal cross from Jeremy Hayward for the equaliser just before half-time. Craig then beat the Indian goalkeeper with his reverse shot after being fed by captain Matthew Swann.
The Australian goalkeeper denied India on a counter-attack in the 41st minute that saw Sardar move into the rival territory and send a pass to Akashdeep on top of the circle. But Akashdeep’s reverse shot did not cause any problem for the Australian keeper.
Aaron Kleinschmidt missed a sitter after getting the ball in the Indian goalmouth, before India earned the last of their third penalty corners but Harmanpreet’s rising flick was cleared by the goalkpeeper.
The third Australian goal, from Tom Wickham came after he ran square into the circle as three Indian defenders hesitated to tackle him. Wickham slammed in a firm shot that gave no chance to the custodian.
India played last seven minutes without goalkeeper, looking to cut the deficit. However, Australia, despite being a man down, defended strongly and did not concede. “There’s no doubt that he’s (Sreejesh) a fantastic goal-keeper, but his going off the pitch was not the turning point,”Oltmans said. “We got back into the game and we got opportunities.”
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