| India’s Ignace Tirkey (left) is challenged by South Africa’s Ian Symons during their Azlan Shah Cup match in Kuala Lumpur on Thursday. (Reuters)
Kuala Lumpur: A brace, including a last-minute winner from defender Len Aiyappa enabled three-time champions India to claim full points from their opening fixture, getting the better of South Africa 2-1 at the Azlan Shah Cup hockey meet here Thursday. The match was barren till the break.
In the tournament-opener, Pakistan struggled to overcome New Zealand 2-1 with all the goals coming in the first half.
The Indian midfield was found sorely wanting with only veteran Ignace Tirkey making a token impact after Inderjit Chadha, used as a linkman by coach rajinder Singh (Jr) was injured in the early stages.
Rookies Davinder Pal Singh and Jaswinder Singh messed up some easy trappings and were constantly side-stepped and dodged by their rivals, thus adding further pressure on skipper Dilip Tirkey.
The Indian attack line of Sandeep Michael, Deepak Thakur, Arjun Halappa and Prabhjot Singh rarely moved in tandem, making heavy weather of the few chances that came their way in the striking circle.
At times it was not clear if there was a game-plan at all, as the tendency appeared to be on holding on to the ball.
India were lucky to get away with this individualistic pattern. Halappa, Thakur and Prabhjot missed their scoring chances with regularity.
However, Indian goalkeeper Devesh Chauhan played his heart out, denying the opponents many times. The only time he faltered was when the equaliser came off a rebound, but it was a scorcher which would have beaten the best in the business.
India took the lead in the 47th minute from their second penalty corner as Aiyappa drag-flicked low to the right of goalkeeper Chris Hibbert.
However, Indian jubilation was shortlived as the Proteas shot back three minutes later from their third penalty corner. This was again a set-piece with full-back Justin King’s wristy flicks read perfectly by Chauhan.
However, the clearance went to Clyde Abrahams whose reverse hit went home like a bullet to make the teams level.
As both sides missed opportunities the Indians went into defence-crowding. This tactic nearly proved suicidal as the South African strikers almost took the lead. However, their attempts by Emile Smith and Eric Rose Innes were well anticipated by Dilip Tirkey.
Two minutes to time South Africa were awarded their fourth penalty corner after Harpal Singh could not make a clean clearance. That, though, proved abortive.
India had the final say as they forced a last-minute penalty corner when Prabhjot rallied to take the ball into the rivals’ circle but was tackled roughly by defender Ken Forbes.
Aiyappa made no mistake again as he neatly penetrated with clinical precision past the hapless South African defence for the victory.