In the end, there were no surprises. Australia, reigning world champions, showed their class and the reasons why they are the world’s number one team, easily dismantling five-time champion India 4-0 to take home the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup for a record ninth time.
Australia didn’t even need the services of Chris Ciriello, their penalty corner specialist and even kept Jamie Dwyer out of the team. Between Craig Thomas and Matt Gohdes, they scored four goals to kill whatever hopes India had after their scintillating performance against the Malaysians. In the league stage, Australia had beaten India 5-1.
In the world of hockey, statistics don’t lie. It was a final between the world’s No 1 team against the world No 7. But every Indian fan inside the stadium in Ipoh or scattered across the world wanted a match that would have pitted every sinew, muscle and mind against the fast paced Australians. In the last six matches played between the two teams during the period 2015-16, Australia has won three, India two and one was drawn. Hopes had been raised after the 6-1 win against the hosts Malaysia. But it wasn’t the score-line alone that made everyone tune in – it was the speed, territorial advantage and possession skills that India had displayed. Speed and Fluidity were the key factors in the matches against Pakistan and Malaysia.
Australia won their ninth Sultan Azlan Cup after beating India. Image courtesy: Twitter/@Kookaburras
For reasons that probably the coaching staff would need to decipher, fluidity was nowhere to be seen and even form seemed to have deserted the Indians; worse, structure, which is of utmost importance for a hockey team, was all over the place. In the defence, all of them bunched up, making it easier for the Australians to go past them. The midfield struggled from the first quarter. The forwards refused to spread out. There were at least four crosses that didn’t have a single Indian receiving in the striking circle.
The goalless first quarter wasn’t because India defended well. The Australians took their time to settle down and even wasted a penalty corner. Sunil had a fine run into the Australian striking circle but eventually found no one to receive his pass. If the team strategy was to keep the quarter quiet and not allow the Aussies to score, it was successful. But the big question when you play Australia is how long can you keep them quiet? On the contrary, to be able to unsettle them, one needs to ensure that a formation is in place to rotate and score.
India was too hasty in the second quarter. Even Sardar whose normal game plan is to hold till a player is in position was firing in passes which were speeding off the touch line. The possession was almost equal. Australia on the other hand, inter-passed and if against a wall of Indian players, threw the ball back to create a move again. India squandered the ball easily, creating counter-attacks. The errors were piling up. And the break point came in the 25th minute when Flynn Ogilive gave a measured pass to Craig Thomas. Between him and taking a shot were Danish, Jasjit Kular and the Indian goalkeeper Akash Chitke. The Aussie somehow hoodwinked both Danish and Kular and beat Chitke on the angle. Australia was up 1-0. India kept away a second Australian penalty corner. But immediately India had an opportunity when Talwinder moved in beautifully to give it to Sunil who delayed too long.
In the third quarter, India would have got the equalizer but Thimmaiah after getting a through from Sardar, shot the ball high. It was extremely naïve from a player as experienced as Thimmaiah. A flat shot would probably have beaten the Australian goalkeeper who was rushing out and not covering his angle. India earned their first penalty corner and Harmanpreet Singh’s flick was easily saved by goalkeeper Andrew Charter. Surprisingly, Harmanpreet’s flick was clocked at 70 km per hour when he regularly touches around 100 plus!
Australia’s second goal came due to an Indian midfield error. Simon Orchard went past four Indian players, and not because his stick was creating magic, but because each and every Indian player he beat was flaying his stick wildly instead of being ram-rod straight and tackling him. From the top of the circle, he passed to Craig Thomas whose dive ensured that Australia led 2-0 in the 35th minute. The match was slipping away from India's grasp.
After India wasted their second penalty corner, a counter-attack saw Chris Ciriello give it to Mathew Swann whose shot was saved by Chitke. But the rebound rolled free. With the defence in a bunch, Matt Gohdes was unmarked and his slash gave Australia a 3-0 lead. More than a miracle, India needed belief. It was like the team had over-night lost its skill, speed and spirit.
Chikte may have conceded three goals in the first three quarters but two were defensive errors. Bringing in Harjot was a mistake. If the idea was to stop the Aussies scoring, Indian coach Roelant Oltman’s gamble badly misfired. Harjot did keep the third Australian penalty corner out but he was a bag of nerves. India had a couple of chances but the cohesion and team work was missing. In fact, in one move, all the three forwards - Mandeep, Ramandeep and Thimmaiah - were running one behind the other, the right side of the field empty. India’s worst moment in the match came in the 57th minute. A long pass from Australia’s half found Matt Gohdes to the extreme left of the Indian striking circle. His rasping shot from there went past Harjot’s pads even though the Indian goalkeeper had the angle covered.
The team will have a difficult night. As a group they will watch the video of what went wrong. Of course, they understand that winning and losing is a part of sport. But somebody will need to remind them that high performance is not always about winning. It’s also about getting better and being consistent.