Glasgow - The South Africa men’s hockey team, missing the services of key players Jonty Robinson and Andrew Cronje, were beaten 5-2 by favourites India after trailing 4-0 at half-time in what was effectively a quarter-final at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow Thursday evening.
Double Olympian Cronje (concussion after taking a fearful blow in first-wave penalty corner defence against Australia and spending the last two days in hospital) and Olympian Robinson (torn calf) were unable to play - leaving SA down to only three field players on the rolling subs bench compared to India's five, which is a massive disadvantage.
SA post-man at defensive penalty corners, Tim Drummond, was also hit on the head at an Aussie PC and it must have taken enormous courage for the Durbanite to take up his position on the left-hand post against India’s powerful drag-flickers at corner time.
India were at their brilliant best at times but SA didn’t help themselves in the first half with a number of unforced errors, yet the fightback of the South Africans from the desperate position of trailing by four goals to a 4-2 score early in the second half says much for them.
V.R. Raghunath (third minute) and Rupinder Singh (ninth) both nailed down successful penalty corners to put India 2-0 up before Ramandeep Singh (22nd) and S.V. Sunil (26th) scored from field play for the 4-0 half-time score.
In the 12th minute the never-say-die spirit of the South Africans saw Taine Paton smash a stunning shot into the backboard past a helpless keeper but on video referral the chance to pull one back was disallowed after the ball was adjudged to have inadvertently hit the back of Paton’s stick in the immediate build-up to his strike.
Seven minutes into the second half (42nd) SA capitalised on a much-improved start when captain Austin Smith placed a powerful slap pass straight to Paton’s stick, whose deft touch while facing away from goal left the keeper stranded (4-1).
Paton came close soon after but India came back to win a PC which Pieterse saved brilliantly and the result was SA winning a PC at the other end from the breakout, and Smith flashed his drag-flick into the top-left corner of the net for 4-2 after 47 minutes. SA were on their way to winning the second half spoils but the two players shot cost them fresh legs in remaining 23 minutes.
The Indians then hit the post and soon after SA were down to nine men on the pitch and India 10 as the umpires banished players to the sin-bin. In all, six players went this way in a fierce encounter.
Manpreet Singh (57th) gave India a vital three-goal cushion (5-2) with 13 minutes left but SA were not done yet and hit the post not long after.
With nine minutes left both teams were back to the full complement of 11 players on the park.
However, with six to go - as if Drummond has not taken enough blows - India captain Sardar Singh was lucky to escape with only a yellow card after an incredibly dangerous sliding tackle on the SA player that saw the midfielder come very close to serious head damage again.
Both teams were down to 10 men in the last five minutes as the game got increasingly ugly.
Keeper Rassie Pieterse, who made a number of brilliant saves in the match, was subbed with four minutes left as SA threw down their final card by adding an extra field player in a bid to wrest the dream for a semi-final berth out of the fire.
With one minute left Paton won a PC but India blocked Smith’s low flick and it was game over.
The SA team can feel proud of how they dealt with adversity against near-impossible odds and will play Canada for fifth place (from 10.50am SA time Saturday, live on SHD7 and SS7).
Earlier Thursday, both men’s captain Smith and head coach Fabian Gregory wished the SA women’s team well in their semi-final versus Commonwealth Games hot favourites Australia’s Hockeyroos Friday afternoon at 13:05.