Kept at bay by Australia’s pace, drive, intensity and skill, India at the end of the third quarter faced a 1-4 deficit. The hosts had a match to save, dignity to be restored. Two goals cut the deficit to 3-4 at the start of the 4th quarter and with 35 seconds to go, India flicked a golden opportunity, their 5th PC, wide off the mark as a shoot-out and a possible ‘Houdini style’ victory slipped through. Australia won 4-3, undefeated against India now in nine consecutive matches. India’s last win came in 2016 in a Test in Australia when India won 3-2.
At the start of the FIH Pro League match, Indian coach Graham Reid, well-versed with Aussie methods (Reid was the 2016 Rio Olympics Australian coach), said the Indians would try to ‘create and convert.’ But, after the initial thrust in the first couple of minutes, the half-line surprisingly disintegrated. It was there but the structure so vital when you have players like Manpreet Singh, Vivek Sagar Prasad and Hardik Singh went off the grid. Vivek was seen on the left or right extreme and with Australia pressing, Manpreet was pushed back into defence. There were early signs when Rupinder Pal Singh sent a high ball deep into the Australian defence. Dilpreet Singh’s trap and push into the Aussie striking circle was well defended.
Five minutes later came the error from Rupinder and the ball was picked up by Australian captain Aran Zalewski, who tore through the middle, squared and saw the ball dispatched into the centre for Dylan Wotherspoon to give Australia the lead. It was one-touch hockey and the Indian defence appeared flatfooted at the first instance of brilliant offensive hockey.
In fact, it was the Aussie captain Zalewski who marshalled the midfield with some wonderful runs. India gave a lot of space in the middle and even the man-to-man marking, so good against the Dutch and the Belgians, was lacklustre. For almost every ball that India had, Australia pushed three players, effectively cutting away the angles and forcing mistakes from the Indians. The tactic of shutting down Manpreet and Vivek also paid off in the first two quarters; two of India’s creative players couldn’t work the mid-centre and the corners. Effectively, the gap in the Indian midfield was exploited by Australia. Even though the circle entries were four each for India and Australia after the first quarter, Australia were the sharper of the two.
At the back, Australia played a tight defence. They didn’t hurry but waited for India to make mistakes and the counter-attacks were fast and brutal. Jake Whetton, Matt Dawson, Lachlan Sharp (man-of-the-match), Kurt Lovett used space brilliantly while not giving any breathing space to the Indian defence. The one-touch hockey caught India off guard. For a moment, India tried to increase the pace. Even that didn’t work as Australia rotated the ball.
Three minutes into the second quarter came goal number two when Eddie Ockenden, with a burst of speed, gave the ball to Tom Wickham, who made it 2-0. At this point, India could have cut the pace, held the ball and given the team some air to breathe. The defence was panicking as Surender Kumar, Birendra Lakra, Rupinder Pal and even Harmanpreet Singh were being pushed off the ball and into corners. At the end of the second quarter, Australia had 10 circle entries to India’s eight. But the Aussies were precise and accurate.
After the break, it was clear India needed to wake up and find another gear. Even if they were not being outplayed, they were clearly not in the match. What was still worrying was the amount of space afforded to Australia. At the start of the third quarter, Jacob Anderson slipped when he had acres of space in front — a classic example of India not marking and getting huddled up in a corner.
A show of intent came in the 34th minute when India earned the first of the three penalty corners in the matter of a few minutes. Jake Harvie was brilliant as the runner as he neutralised the first two PCs. Rupinder Pal Singh’s flick off the third went straight to Andrew Charters left glove but the ball instead of dropping dead, rebounded. An alert Raj Kumar Pal picked the rebound, it bounced once and then Pal showing some cool nerves swatted it past Charter to open India’s account in the match. It was Pal’s first international goal as a senior India player.
Minutes, later, Australia swarmed into India’s circle again. Surender made a goal-line save and then Krishan Pathak saved Australia’s first PC. But the counters continued as Sharp squeezed in the third goal past Pathak in the 41st minute. Hardly had the Indian defence recovered from Sharp’s goal that Harvie went in smoothly in the 42nd minute to put a through for Jacob Anderson whose shot towards goal slid in past Pathak. It was dreadful defending from India. In the space of two minutes, Australia led 4-1.
Maybe, it was Reid’s pep talk that lifted spirits or the Indians decided it was time for a rear-guard action, whatever it was, India’s intensity doubled and then quadrupled. Leading by a healthy margin of 4-1, Australia probably took it a bit easy and India utilised the spaces. Akashdeep Singh showed some wonderful skill, cutting to the right and giving it to Raj Kumar Pal, on the right of the striking circle. Faced with three defenders in front, Pal took a calculated gamble and went for the right corner. Charter, surprised by the shot, was late as the ball hit the bottom of the right post and went into goal. It was 2-4.
India pressed high. Vivek was creating now and one of his passes found Akashdeep, whose hit zipped past the Australian goal. India pushed as Australia fell back. PR Sreejesh made a save at the other end while Australia couldn’t convert off their 2nd PC. India hit back from the midfield and this time Hardik floated down the right flank and earned India’s 4th PC. Rupinder flicked the ball between Sharp and Charter as the scores got cut to 3-4. Eight minutes remained in the game.
Australia furiously back-pedalled as India hovered around their striking circle. India pulled out Sreejesh with a minute and a half left. And, in a final push they rotated the ball to earn their 5th PC to the roar of the fans. 35 seconds remained on the clock. Rupinder’s flick went wide. Australia heaved a sigh of relief and picked up three points moving into third spot with nine points from five matches. India are now in 4th spot with eight points from five games.
After the match, Indian captain Manpreet said the team didn’t start well ‘but in the fourth quarter, we played our game.’ Former Indian coach V Bhaskaran said there was a lot of intensity from the Australian team. “I think Zalewski was the hero in the first three quarters as he rotated extremely well and handled the midfield brilliantly.” Bhaskaran also said, “Australia didn’t allow India to hold onto the ball for long, but the defence should have played cautiously.” Speaking about the second match on Saturday, the former India captain and coach said: “India haves to close down the Aussies quickly and they need the midfield to fire.”
Even if India’s performance against Australia was a little cagier, especially the forwards, the second game promises more dynamism, the kind that was witnessed in Friday’s fourth quarter.
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Updated Date: Feb 22, 2020 13:02:09 IST