Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), Aug. 7 :The India women's hockey team, who were making their first Olympic appearance in 36 years, bounced back from two goals down to settle for a 2-2 draw against Japan in their opening Pool B match in Rio de Janeiro on Sunday.
In one of the toughest fought matches in the event so far, it was India who made the smarter start, holding possession as Lilima Minz dictated the play in the midfield with Vandana Katariya and Preeti Dubey making the runs ahead.
Minz's drive from the top of the circle came off a Japanese stick towards Dubey with just the goalkeeper to beat.
The defensive pressure was just enough though as she shot wide. Within minutes, there was another, this time Poonam Rani dragging an effort wide. There was a real threat that they could make it count too. They created enough problems in the Japanese defence to score a few, but finally it was Japan's patience that paid out.
With 10 seconds of the first quarter to go, Japan won their first penalty corner and a swift improvisation left India's defence and Savita Punia in goal with no chance.
Emi Nishikori shot home to give Japan the lead heading into the break. The second quarter was tougher, as India down a goal looked to play up field, Japan content on the counter.
Savita was called into action for the first time in the quarter and pulled a sharp save to deny Japan a second.
Japan tightened their grip on the game in the 28th minute, Mie Nakashima deflecting a cross from the left to double their lead as they went into half time.
It was a different Indian team that came out of the dressing room though, the nervousness and indecision replaced by adventure at the start of 3rd quarter.
Within the first minute, the lead had been halved via a penalty corner. Rani, took the injection and scored off the hit - perfectly placed in the bottom corner - to mark her debut at the Games with a goal.
Japan had a penalty corner of their own soon enough but pushed it wide. It was to prove one of their final successful forays of the quarter, as India pushed on creating opportunities to draw the game level.
First they pulled a penalty corner wide before Japan's Asano Sakiyo was called into action, pulling off a smart save.
It took till the 39th minute, and another penalty corner before India finally got their equaliser. Deepika's mishit was parried away by Asano, only for Sushila to inject it towards goal again, this time the ball looping off a Japanese stick to rise in the air.
Minz took the half chance, burying it into the net. Japan appealed for dangerous play, and a video referral was called for. It didn't matter, the goal would stand. A cagey game was blown open. India kept up the pressure in the final quarter, Rani drawing Asano into another smart save off a penalty corner, before her opposite number in the Indian goal went better, thwarting wave after wave of Japanese attempts to keep India in level.
The final minutes were frenzy, Japan pushing to get the winner as India held on, defensively strong, for the point.
It would be India who would come closest to winning it though, Vandana denied by Asano's stick in the dying seconds of the game.
Thirty six years from their debut appearance at the Olympics, India were back. And they had their first point now. Reflecting on the match, Chief Coach Neil Hawgood said, "This was our first time on this stage and it was a smart performance.
Our first points at the Olympics. It is a milestone for this generation of Indian women hockey." India will now lock horns with Great Britain on August 9.