Lucknow, Dec 16 (IANS) Home favourites India are only one step away from realising the dream of earning their only second Hockey Junior World Cup title as they edged past Australia 4-2 (2-2) via penalty shoot-out to set up a title showdown against Belgium here on Friday.
Tom Craig's goal in the 14th minute gave Australia the 1-0 lead but India equalised through Gurjant Singh (42nd minute) and led 2-1 with a goal from Mandeep Singh (48th).
But Lachlan Sharp's successful deflection from a close angle in the 57th gave the visitors the equaliser as the match ended 2-2 in the regulation time at the Major Dhyan Chand Stadium here.
In the shoot-out, Indian goalkeeper Vikash Dahiya saved twice to deny Australia the win, as Harjeet Singh, Harmanpreet, Sumit and Manpreet did their job to give the hosts a 4-2 win.
For Australia, Blake Govers and Jack Welch were successful during the shoot-out, while Matthew Bird and Sharp missed out, as they ended their hopes of winning the Under-21 showpiece after 1997.
India's previous appearance in a final of the Junior Hockey World Cup came in 2001 when they won the title, defeating Argentina.
In the final on Sunday, India will meet Belgium, who beat double defending champions Germany, also in a penalty shoot-out 4-3 (0-0).
In the widely-anticipated clash between India and Australia, the boys from Down Under looked the better from the start. The high pressing of the Australians unsettled the Indian defensive structure and the visitors attacked consistently at the Indian post.
Following a poor tackle by an Indian defender, they earned a penalty corner in the 14th minute. Joshua Simmonds' flick was blocked by the Indian defence but the ball moved towards Craig, who was near the left post of Indian goalkeeper Vikash Dahiya. Craig's left-handed drive from a close angle guided the ball past an onrushing Dahiya to make it 1-0.
Australia continued to threaten India but Dahiya was alert to the task. He palmed away fiery penalty corner flick from Blake Govers in the 24th minute. Another penalty corner in the same minute was wasted by Australia following poor trapping by the stopper.
Till this time such was the Australian domination that India had failed to attempt a purposeful shot at the Australian post.
India slowly gained the rhythm and earned several scoring chances to equalise before the half-time. Australian goalkeeper Asleigh Thomas brought out his stick towards the right side to keep away a thunderous penalty corner flick from Harmanpreet Singh in the 29th minute.
Thomas came again to his side's rescue as he blocked a Vikramjit Singh's drive from the right. Simranjeet Singh too had the opportunity to make it 1-1 but his tap-in missed the mark by a whisker after Australian captain Samuel Liles couldn't fully control a long-ranger aerial ball from Harmanpreet.
Trailing 0-1, India came out looking determined and disciplined and their tactics of drilling long passes -- a distinct feature of their counter-attack.
One such quick counter-attack in the 42nd minute saw Simranjeet feeding just behind the half line to Gurjant, who sped away inside the Australian circle and employed a ripping reverse-hand strike from the right through the legs of custodian Thomas on the far post to make it 1-1.
India's confidence was boosted after the equaliser and with the Lucknow crowd urging them on, the hosts found the lead six minutes later via Mandeep. The Indian blocked an aerial ball from Simmonds just 10 metres pass the 'D' and played an one-two with Nilakanta Sharma before hammering a simmering left-hand strike to make it 2-1.
Australia's reaction to the goal was sharp as they earned a penalty corner but Dahiya stretched his right leg to deny a Blake Govers' low flick.
However, the equaliser came in the 57th minute when Sharp smartly blocked Indian goalkeeper Dahiya's vision to deflect in successfully.
Dahiya, however, made amends in the shoot-out as he stood strong in blocking two Australian efforts, paving the way for India's entry into the final.