Beneath the brave words, the quiet yet painful comfort of a 1-1 draw, a practical captain explaining the errors and a coach who quietly understands the value of only the 19th draw in the history of India-Australia hockey, the Indian team must be hurting. Like the ache you get when you know you missed the lottery by just a digit.
The hurt would be particularly severe on Gurjant Singh, for he came close twice — within the space of 20 seconds — to going from a young lad with promise to someone permanently stamping his class on this game. In front of 8,000 adoring and roaring fans, India moved the ball on the flanks like a team of jugglers hellbent on winning the show in their very first act.
Each player had his part and they almost squeezed the Aussies out of the match. If Gurjant played high, Akashdeep Singh was the main fulcrum outside the striking circle, picking up through balls, creating space, allowing vital seconds for Mandeep Singh, SV Sunil, Chinglensana Singh and to run into empty pockets. The Aussies were so desperate in the first five minutes that they used the long ball thrice. In the last five years, Australia would rarely have been pegged back so easily — the 2014 World Cup final comes to mind when the Netherlands scored first at home; Australia later smashed home six.
From India, the probes came from the defence too — Harmanpreet Singh and Varun using the flanks with piercing through balls that cut through the Aussie midfield. Varun, in one instance, dodged past an Aussie forward and then reverse hit the pass to the other end. Yes, the youngsters also were rattled later in the match by some dogged Aussie offensive work.
But overall, India dominated and should have been up by a couple of goals in the first quarter. There is always a lurking thought in every hockey fan that at some point the attacks would be reversed. The Australians aren’t at all like the Germans who need to create that perfect passing pattern to open up the bowels inside an opposition defence. Their speed and skill usually bludgeon the opponent. But that is exactly what was being dished out to the Aussies. And the fans loved it. In the end moments of the first quarter, Akashdeep, shimmied down the middle, did a bout of fast breaks with Sunil and then saw his shot whizz past the post.
Finally, the goal arrived in the 20th minute. The crowd was a little restless; too many good moves had been wasted. And when Manpreet Singh picked up the ball from a lovely right flank action there were only two options — either move up, wasting precious seconds or pass down the line. He took the middle path only because Lalit Upadhyay opened up space outside the Australian striking circle.
The Aussies were bisected through the middle and Lalit in a second had flicked it to Mandeep, a lurking presence on the top of the circle. He took it to his left, struck the reverse hit neatly as Lovell Tyler got the angle wrong and to his horror saw the ball neatly shoot in for India to take the lead. The fans roared. It’s always a spectacle for hockey connoisseurs to watch a strike from the top of the circle. None of the fumbling, poking, tapping in off goals here — it was a clean strike from a player who always had the positional sense and skill to score fluently.
But India are most vulnerable when they take the lead. Over the years, India concede from strong positions on the scoreboard. And it came true when an absolutely soft approach made its way into the Indian striking circle for Australia’s 2nd penalty corner. Jeremy Hayward would be more shocked to see Akash Chikte concede a soft goal; a flick that rolled in past the Indian goalkeeper. Chikte, normally clean and efficient in keeping out powerful flicks, failed to anticipate the shot. But probably got taken in by what in cricket terminology would be termed ‘the slower one.’
It took a few seconds for India to rotate and regain momentum. Impressive were the moves on the flanks. Yes, intensity dipped at moments but when playing the World No 2 team, you also have to understand Australia would attack too. For those who have seen Aussies playing fluent hockey with moves that showcased them as a team of ice skaters with pinpoint passing accuracy, the display at the Kalinga Stadium was more of doggedness and a game they brought building on resoluteness. For that itself, all credit to the Indians for forcing Australia to change their tactics.
It’s not that India don’t have anything to worry about. Their forward line with all the razzle-dazzle still needs to tuck away the opportunities. And the midfield would do well to allow Chinglensana, Sumit and Kothajit Singh to ‘intentionally’ move down the left flank as Australia concede more penalty corners on the turn and with ball players like Mandeep, Lalit and Akashdeep, India could have got three or four more PCs. The youngsters in the defence are still vulnerable as Amit Rohidas showed in conceding a penalty corner with an amateurish flash of his stick inside the Indian striking circle.
A strike at that stage by Australia would have made India run after an equaliser. Even later in the match, Amit miss-passed, giving momentum to the Aussies. But what was pleasing to watch was Harmanpreet growing into his role, using the width at the back to ease pressure and make the younger minds settle down. Some of his through passes would have killed the opposition on any other day — but both times, Indian forwards couldn’t read the last second change of direction.
Rupinder Pal Singh brought some verve back and would be deeply disappointed on the penalty corner conversions; in fact, his flick was powerful but couldn’t get the elevation and Tyler only had to stick to his ground to take it on the gloves. But the remaining three in the match lacked direction and any form of thought.
Birendra Lakra still needs a couple of matches to get into his groove but his flashy save of a ball sinking into the Indian goal in the 4th quarter showed the man still hasn’t lost his speed and defensive positional sense. A look at the stats show India’s domination.
At the end of the match, Australia had eight shots to India’s 11 on goal; possession was almost equal at 48 percent to 52 percent; on penalty corners, India conceded six to Aussies’ four; they scored off one. The figure that would make India happy is their circle penetrations at 19 shows a clear domination while for Colin Batch, the Aussie coach, concerns would be high at just 11.
In the Azlan Shah, when India lost 1-3, Australia’s circle penetrations stood at a dominant 20. There are layers that determine a team’s mental fatigue in wins, losses and even draws. But this 1-1 draw would make sure India start fresh against England on Saturday. India have a point, and a win against England would make it four giving us a middle-of-the-table view. Indian coach Sjoerd Marijne felt that India should have walked away with a win.
“In the second half, our defence was in control,” said Marijne. “In the first quarter, of course, we would have liked to score more. We are working on that. We are also working on our penalty corner conversions. This match gives us a good feel for the next match. But we are not satisfied because we wanted to win.”
There was a dip in the intensity somewhere in the 3rd quarter when Australia, in their struggle to wrest the initiative, rotated the ball. With speed killed, India couldn’t sprint past the Aussie midfield and dodge defenders. Australian captain, Mark Knowles, admitted that India are fast on the break. “We knew that they bring speed and also a have controlled, tight defence. It would always be difficult against them.”
For all the beautiful play, deft flicks, give-aways, dazzling shimmies and subtle footwork, a 1-1 draw seems like an anti-climax. When the excitement would have dipped and each of the players closeted with their own thoughts, it would have dawned on them, one by one, the importance of what they let slip away.
Updated Date: Dec 02, 2017 10:37 AM