Ranchi, Feb 22: Punjab Warriors edged out defending champions Ranchi Rhinos 3-2 to make their maiden Hockey India League (HIL) final here Saturday. They next face Delhi Waveriders who pipped Uttar Pradesh Wizards 1-0 in the other semifinal at the Morabadi Hockey Stadium in this Jharkhand capital.
Warriors have scripted a remarkable turnaround after finishing fourth out of five teams in last year’s inaugural HIL. They enter the final high on confidence and have not lost a match since going down in the tournament opener against Waveriders Jan 25.
The atmosphere in the second semifinal was electric with the capacity crowd vociferously cheering the home team every time they were on the ball, wary of the fact that they failed to beat Warriors in their two league games.
Rhinos dictated play in the first half though Warriors managed to level the match through penalty corner specialist and tournament’s leading scorer Sandeep Singh (11 goals).
England Ashley Jackson got Rhinos in front in the 15th minute, his cracking hit towards the right of the cage proving too hot for even a goalkeeper like Jaap Stockmann.
Warriors scored against the run of play in the 21nd minute after Dharamvir Singh earned a penalty corner forcing a stick check. Sandeep converted without fuss to make it 1-1. Both teams traded a penalty corner in the next five minutes without success.
Warriors upped their game after the halftime break and got loads of opportunities. After missing out on back-to-back penalty corners, Sandeep struck off a clean Dharmavir push to make it 2-1.
It was now the visitors’ turn to dominate. It became 3-1 when Jake Whetton smacked an angular shot in after a clean pass from Affan Yousuf.
Rhinos’ loyal fans felt the pressure along with the players on the turf. Gurmail Singh and Manpreet Singh were handed yellow cards after they almost came to blows.
The Warriors’ lead was reduced in the 58th minute, Floris Evers swatting a high ball off the rebound, sending his team’s supporters into a frenzy.
Rhinos searched desperately for an equaliser as the opposition went on the defensive. It eventually turned out be a last minute thriller with Rhinos earning a penalty corner in the 70th minute.
Dutch goalkeeper Stockmann emerged the hero for Warriors, pulling off a brilliant save to the right. And with that valiant effort came the final hooter.
Earlier, a field goal from Yuvraj Walmiki in the 15th minute made the difference in the first semifinal.
The first two quarters saw both teams missing a penalty corner each and not making the most of the break-ins into the striking circle. Walmiki was the only one who made his chance count by deflecting a pass beyond the goalkeeper.
It was an unusual sight when India’s top drag-flickers Rupinder Pal Singh and V.R. Raghunath, playing for different teams, failing to find the back of the goal.
Waveriders’ Rupinder, getting his first penalty corner in the 11th minute, aimed his shot towards the right of the goalkeeper, hitting it wide. Minutes later, Rupinder’s stroke was blocked by none other than Wizards skipper Raghunath.
The Uttar Pradesh franchise, seeking the much needed equaliser, got their second penalty corner early in the third quarter after Ramandeep Singh found the legs of Rupinder in a collision. It turned to be an off-day for Raghunath, whose hit was way off the mark.
The Wizards upped the ante and entered the Delhi’s half repeatedly but the equaliser eluded them. Forward S.K. Uthappa missed his opportunity and could not slot it in from an open area.
Wizards got their third penalty corner through a video referral but to no avail. Raghunath hit the top of the post this time and the Waveriders were lucky to hold onto their slender lead.
The usually water-tight defence of the Waveriders was tested to the core in the fourth quarter. The momentum was very much with the Wizards, who attacked and attacked but without success.
The Waveriders could have scored in counter-attacks on two occasions but substitute goalkeeper Srinivas Rao Katharu denied them the cushion.
The Wizards put pressure on Waveriders till the end but the latter managed to scrape through.
(Bharat Sharma can be contacted at email@example.com)