rediff.com: A last-gasp goal saw India beat South Africa 2-1 in their opening match and begin their campaign in the Azlan Shah Cup hockey tournament in Kuala Lumpur in great style on Thursday.
Len Aiyappa scored at the stroke of the final whistle from a penalty corner to give India victory, though the side struggled for most of the match to come to terms with the hot and humid conditions.
Aiyappa also scored India's first goal from the team's second penalty-corner, five minutes before Clyde Abrahamas drew parity converting from the set-piece.
In the opening match of the tournament, Pakistan beat New Zealand 2-1.
It was the first time that the Indian team played an international match under new coach Rajinder Singh (jr), who, despite the victory, has a lot of things to look at before the next match against New Zealand on Friday.
India must consider themselves lucky for earning full points from the match as South Africa, just before Aiyappa scored the winner, missed out on a scoring opportunity when a shot from one of their players from a penalty-corner hit the cross bar before going out.
Aiyappa, a penalty-corner specialist who played several seasons in the Malaysian League and was well aware of the testing conditions at this time of summer, clinched victory by sending his flick to the top of the net.
Indian goalkeeper Devesh Chauhan played his heart out, thwarting the Kiwis with some fine saves.
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. His earlier attempt was warded off as the ball rose towards the roof of the net.
But Indian joy was short lived 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.
Both sides thereafter missed a few opportunies as the Indians went into a crowded defence. This tactic nearly proved suicidal as the South African strikers nearly took the lead, but attempts by Emile Smith and Eric Rose Innes were well anticipated by Dilip Tirkey.
With two minutes from the long whistle South Africa were awarded their fourth penalty-corner after Harpal Singh could not make a clean clearance. But they could not convert this chance into a goal with the crossbar coming to India's aid.
India, however, had the last say as they forced a last minute penalty-corner after Prabhjot ran with the ball into the rival circle but was tackled roughly by defender Ken Forbes.
Aiyappa made no mistake again as he neatly sent the ball past the hapless South Africa defence to give India victory.
India coach Rajinder Singh Jr. said while he was happy with the win, his boys will have to improve as the tournament progresses.
'All the games are tough,' he said, adding that the squad is handicapped by the absence of Viren Rasquinha and Vikram Pillay in the hal-fline.
'I am confident that this team will play better tomorrow,' he said.
India play New Zealand on Friday.
Pakistan began their campaign beating New Zealand 2-1 in the opening match of the tournament, with all goals scored in the first half.
Pakistan forged ahead in the 15th minute through Adnan Zakir, who tapped the ball past goalkeeper Kyle Pontifax following a a pass by Rehan Butt.
But the Kiwis, who were checked by Pakistan goalkeeper Salman Akhbar on a couple of occasions, restored parity only seven minutes later with a neatly taken penalty-corner by Geredh Brooks.
Imran Warsi's goal from a penalty-corner two minutes before half-time turned out to be the match-winner for Pakistan. His knee-high flick beat Pontifax hands down.
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