Bhubaneswar: The Indian hockey team got a morale boost ahead of their inaugural World Cup game on Wednesday with the coach of the top-ranked Australian team, Colin Batch, giving his vote of confidence to the hosts.
Batch, a part of the World Cup-winning team of 1986, said that while the hosts will be under pressure, he expects the Manpreet Singh-led side to rise to the occasion.
India open their campaign against 15th-ranked South Africa later on Wednesday.
"India have improved a lot. I think they will play well here. The best teams play consistently well throughout the tournament, and they play their best in the critical stages to make sure they win the tournament. There will be pressure on India for sure, but they are a good team and everyone in world hockey respects them enormously," Batch, who has also coached the New Zealand hockey team, said.
India last played Australia in the Champions Trophy in Breda earlier this year, and lost the final on penalties to the Kookaburras. That PR Sreejesh-led India, Batch conceded, was the best Indian team Australia had encountered in a long time.
"We played them in the Champions Trophy, and I think that was the best Indian team we have played against in a while," he said. Five players that played in that competition — Jarmanpreet Singh, Sardar Singh, SV Sunil, Ramandeep Singh, Vivek Prasad — are not part of India's World Cup squad, with Sardar having announced his retirement after being dropped from the national camp for the Asian Champions Trophy.
Australia are chasing a record-equalling fourth world title, and should the team — being led jointly by Aran Zalewski and Eddie Ockenden — lift the Cup on 16 December, it will also mark a hat-trick of World Cups for the defending champions.
Co-captain Zalewski said the team is not chasing the landmark but is taking the competition as a challenge.
"It is obviously great to have such a history at World Cups. We'd look at previous World Cups and take experiences from that, but this is a completely different group of players. We have 9-10 guys making their debut in the World Cup. We are not really taking any pressure to defend that title but looking it as a challenge," he said.
Batch agreed. "We have a proud history at the World Cups, but we do look at this as a challenge. Everyone is equal at the moment. We will have a good look at some of the teams competing, and our focus is thoroughly on Ireland (against whom they play their first match on 30 November) and making sure we are thoroughly prepared."
The captain and coach conceded that the crossover format gives lesser teams greater chances to qualify for the knockouts.
"We are not pleased or displeased about the format; that's how international hockey is being played these days. We know that tournaments run on the potential of knock-out matches. This format gives all the teams to make it to the knock-outs, and it makes for a very unpredictable and exciting competition," Zalewski said.
"The format is very unpredictable. You saw at the women's World Cup where it was so unpredictable; a lot of fancied teams got knocked out in the crossovers and then the quarters. From the FIH point of view and the world of hockey, it (the format) is very exciting," Batch added. Australia are grouped in Pool B with Ireland, England, and China.
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Updated Date: Nov 28, 2018 16:17:04 IST