NEW DELHI // India's frenzied fans cheered their men's hockey team into the final yesterday as the side beat England on penalties to remain on course for the gold medal the host country craves the most.
While some events at the Delhi Games have been played in front of only a handful of supporters, the Maj Dhyan Chand National Stadium was rocking as 19,000 fans danced on seats and waved flags after India won the semi-final on penalties 5-4.
The result means India will play favourites Australia in the final and are guaranteed a first Commonwealth Games men's hockey medal. The victory proved too much for some, with fans seen crying after the win and local journalists and volunteers embracing in scenes that demonstrated the importance of the game in India, second in popularity only to cricket. Bharat Chandri, the Indian goalkeeper, produced the only save of the shoot-out when he denied Glenn Kirkham's third effort for England after the match had finished 3-3.
The Indian team hugged and took in the crowd's appreciation as they completed a lap of honour while Canadian and Malaysian sides, playing in a later match, attempted to go through their pre-match preparations. However, for long periods the victory looked unlikely for India, who beat rivals Pakistan in their previous match. Fans streamed in throughout the first half after missing the start of the match as they struggled to get through the heavy security and busy Delhi rush-hour traffic.
A flock of kites also did their best to disturb the early action, the large brown birds swooping continuously on to the artificial surface as England took a 3-1 advantage midway through the second half, much to the astonishment of home fans. But the crowd continued to cheer and hit their seats to make a deafening drumming noise as the home side swept back to force extra time before prevailing in the shoot-out.
"Our defence was very strong but as we tired our deep defence struggled so we allowed them chances and 20,000 Indians spurred them on," Andy Halliday, the England manager, said. In the earlier semi-final, Simon Orchard and Glenn Turner scored two goals apiece for Australia to keep them on course for a fourth successive gold medal with a 6-2 win. Jason Wilson and Des Abbott also scored for the reigning champions.
"The scoreline flatters us a bit, but it was a tough match," said Luke Doerner. Turner scored the Australia opener. The New Zealand defence erred twice in three minutes when they gave enough space to Orchard and Wilson as Australia went 3-0 up by half time. Abbot put Australia 4-0 ahead in the 43rd minute before New Zealand hit back through Blair Hilton and Phil Burrows, their captain. "They came back with two goals and threw everything at us," Doerner said.
New Zealand tried hard to close the gap and left enough spaces in the defence for Turner to score off a reverse flick from a narrow angle and Orchard completed the tally three minutes from time. Hilton said if New Zealand had scored again while trailing 4-2, a comeback would have been more likely. "I think the game was closer than the scores show," Hilton said. "Last time we played we lost 9-1 to them so we performed much better."
South Africa earned fifth place when Justin Reid scored a golden goal off a 75th-minute penalty corner for a 3-2 comeback win over 10-man Pakistan. The match finished 2-2 in regulation time. Pakistan defender Mohammad Irfan was shown a red card after he deliberately pushed Marvin Harper with his hockey stick inside the striking circle. Khawaja Junaid, the Pakistan team manager, said that tournament jury later handed a three-match ban to Irfan.
* Associated Press