Irony of sport shines through as India salvages a point

The irony of sport – and indeed life itself – was never too apparent than in India’s last two games in the Hero Honda FIH World Cup. On Saturday, India lost to a game England that it should have drawn, if not won. On Monday, it was left thanking its stars after a 3-3 draw with a Shivendra Singh goal in the dying minutes to figure in the play-off for the seventh place.

It would be an understatement to say that India dominated much of the match – throwing in a number of attackers to raid the South African circle, playing a bit more aggressively than it did in the past few games. And yet, for a large part of the second half, it did not seem to find that one nudge that would slot the ball home – until just five minutes were left for the final whistle.

The irony was showcased tellingly when India earned its second penalty corner in the first half. For the second time running, Arjun Halappa was unable to stop the ball for Sandeep Singh to try and drag-flick it. But, he recovered to be able to pass the ball to an unmarked Diwakar Ram whose powerful drive went in off goalkeeper Erasmus Pieterse’s pads to earn India a 2-1 lead.

We had a greater dose of such a paradox when India scored a fabulous goal when Sarvanjit Singh capped a delightful bout of passing but that had to be disallowed since South Africa had asked for a video referral and secured a penalty corner. The irony was greater because India’s coach Jose Brasa had said a couple of days ago that umpires must not stop play for referrals.

And it became more stark when the video referral paid dividends for South Africa and it was awarded a penalty corner. Lloyd Madsen made no mistake with converting that and pushing his team 3-2 ahead 13 minutes into the second half. The crowd could not believe that India’s goal had been reversed and South Africa given the chance to take the lead.

It was the quarter-hour spell after that which reinforced the cruel irony. India virtually pitched camp in the South African half and did everything but score. The ball was deflected in to the goal twice but on both occasions, the only sticks it connected in the scoring circle were South African and the wild cheer from the home fans were only false alarms.

I was a bit surprised that with the forwards not finding the scoring touch, Brasa did not try the unusual but not unique tactic of making a defender play inside the rival circle to try and deflect the ball in to the goal. Time after time, Rajpal Singh, Prabhjot Singh and Gurwinder Singh Chandi did not make contact with the crosses and yet no innovation was tried.

For quite some time, the threat of having to finish fifth in the group behind South Africa and play-off for the ninth place were looming large. And then, the stadium heaved a collective sigh of relief before bursting out in applause when Shivendra Singh pounced on a rebound off Pieterse’s pads and reverse flicked it in to salvage a draw.

Indeed, the irony was never more apparent.

This piece was written for