On a muggy afternoon in Ipoh, Malaysia at the 25th Azlan Shah Hockey Tournament, where sweat dripped off players like multiple taps on over-drive, the Australians were just too hot to handle. They defeated India by a convincing scoreline of 5-1, and yet they would feel they were a few goals short. There were no repeats of 2015 when India beat Australia 4-2.
India is playing without some of their seniors and big names but that will be a difficult excuse when they look at the match video in the evening. Good teams are known for defending as a unit and the Indians were way off the mark. Goalkeeper Harjot Singh will realise he had a bad night, once he goes through the replays and understands that his wrong positioning contributed to two goals. Even Harmanpreet Singh might need to spend some time with himself knowing that a defender's job is to watch the ball and not the player.
For a team that is struggling to score, build-ups are the way to boost confidence. But against Australia the midfield let India down badly. Time and again, the players lost the ball, giving away attacking opportunities to the Aussies. Nine times India lost possession five metres away from the Australian striking circle. And six times, the build-up was cut short because the passes were wayward.
Coach Roelant Oltmans cannot claim that the team has a mix of young players playing their first big tournament; irrational passing that gives the ball to the Aussies cannot be explained by that. Rupinder Pal Singh did score the equalizer that lifted the mood briefly but it was his pass in India’s striking circle that went to Australia’s Edward Ockenden who flashed in a strike at 108 km an hour which Harjot probably never saw. Australia at that stage led 3-1 and the match had been effectively wrenched away from India’s grasp.
The Aussies, on the other hand, have come with a full side – and when they select the team for Rio, there would not be too many changes. At the age of 37, Jamie Dwyer, who plays for Punjab Warriors in the Hockey India League and has over 220 international goals is still capable of weaving geometric patterns. In the 13th minute, Jamie was on India’s right flank, inside the striking circle. Harjot covered the left post. Probably, any other player might have taken a shot at goal. Not Jamie. He saw an unmarked Jacob Whetton in the middle of the circle. The ball skillfully bisected the defence and before Harmanpreet Singh realized that he had been sold a dummy, Whetton celebrated his 100th international match by giving a 2-1 lead to Australia.
But what is utterly baffling is SV Sunil and Ramandeep -- two seasoned campaigners -- seem to have lost their situation grasp. Both seem to have lost control of how to handle the ball when faced with a defender or while cutting into the circle. Thrice, Sunil had the chance to pass to better placed players. But he took pot shots at the goalpost knowing that the angle was just not there. Ramandeep was a passenger and the few chances that he had, tried to bounce the ball on his stick and rush in –- the opponents were Australia and not the Mauritius team.
The fourth goal came in the 26th minute when Jamie again showed why he is one of the greatest to have played the sport. Stuck in a corner on the right with his back to the goal, he flicked the ball into the circle where Simon Orchard had run in to pick up and score an easy goal. Harjot had again been caught in no-man’s land. The Indian defence was bunching up and giving away space to the Aussies to score. On the other hand, the Australians stood in a line, one behind the other or spread out when the Indian forwards moved, keeping an eye, marking them so that there was no space for inter-passing or even shots at goal.
The third quarter went past quickly and even though India had striking circle penetration, shots were not on target. At that stage, Australia had possession of around 55 percent.
The 4th quarter was a slow affair. Humidity was taking its toll and even the Aussies seemed relaxed, not pushing too hard in their build-ups. The fifth goal was again a failure of the defence. Even with Kothajit and Jasjit Singh Kular in position to stop Simon Orchard’s late pass, both reacted slowly. Matt Ghodes went into a dive and the ball deflected off his stick to trickle into goal.
In the end, stats would show that India was marginally ahead in the striking circle possession. India had 19 to Australia’s 17. But the crucial difference was control and awareness of the other player’s position. The argument could be that without Dharamveer, Akashdeep Singh and Devinder Walmiki, India don’t have the fire-power. But with four months to go for the Olympics, excuses are not what coach Oltmans would want to hand out. Juniors or seniors, there is an inherent quality that makes players rise to the occasion. Against Mark Knowles' mighty Australian side, India willfully drowned.