NEW DELHI: The electronic clock paused at 3:01 in the final quarter. The umpire held his arms horizontally and motioned to the goal. A penalty corner for Jaypee Punjab Warriors. With the match squared at 2-2, and the clock ticking down, a shot away was their maiden Hockey India League title, glittering in the mixed zone between the team dugouts.
The collective gaze of the stadium converged on Sandeep Singh, he of guillotine flicks. He sprinted from the centre-line and stationed himself a few metres from the D. That would give him the required momentum to unfurl that dreaded flick of his. Sandeep’s fidgetiness, though, was unconcealed. Pouting and sneering, he nervously waited for his turn. As the ball was pushed, on rushed Sandeep, his stick ready to swing. Swing he did, but his shot lacked both power and direction and Ranchi’s goalkeeper Lovell Tyler palmed the ball away.
The clock paused again at 2.31. Punjab had earned another penalty corner. Sandeep again went through his routines, but surely he wasn’t to spill this time. Mistake. He timed his run so poorly that he completely missed the ball. Sandeep didn’t even have time to brood on his blunder as he had to shore up the backline. For someone eyeing a national comeback, this was the moment to seize. Carpe Diem, his mind would have whispered a hundred times. But how gloriously he misfired! And add to that an opportunity he had spilled in the first half, he has to put his comeback aspirations on hold.
Punjab, clearly the more dominating side hitherto, suddenly lost momentum. Clearly, the brunt of history was weighing down on them. A shootout had broken their hearts in last year’s final too, against Delhi Waveriders in Ranchi. Cruelly, and almost invariably, they couldn’t alter their fate this time either. It could only be delayed, until Ashley Jackson thundered home a penalty stroke after Punjab’s goalkeeper Jaap Stockmann, eager to keep his team alive, clamped Manpreet Singh down. The scoreboard read 5-4. The men in red-and-golden jerseys broke into their customary celebrations. Punjab players wore a crestfallen look. Yet again, they had contrived to choke. Twice they had found themselves leading, but on both instances they let their rivals back. Kieron Govers put them in front in the 27th minute, only to be annulled by Stanley Minz five minutes later. They reclaimed the lead in the last quarter, a neatly executed flick by Christopher Ciriello, but it lasted hardly two minutes as Barry Middleton restored parity. Meanwhile, Ranchi demonstrated an inhuman calm and wherewithal under duress that would have made their co-owner Mahendra Singh Dhoni proud.
Final: Ranchi Rays 2 (Stanli Minz 42’, Barry Middleton 57’) vs Jaypee Punjab Warriors 2 (Kieran Govers 39’, Christopher Ciriello 56’). Rays won 3-2 on shootout.
Third Place: Delhi Waveriders 2 (Rupinder Pal Singh 6’, Yuvraj Walmiki 50’) bt Uttar Pradesh Wizards 1 (Nikkin Thimmaiah 18’).