Indian hockey team's uncharacteristic defensive blips result in Australia loss
India in action against Australia at the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup. Image courtesy: Twitter/@HockeyIndia
Echoes of the past reverberated in Australia’s 3-1 victory over India at the 26th Sultan Azlan Shah Hockey Tournament in Ipoh.
There were signs that the distance between the World Champions and Asian Games Champions had been bridged; to some extent. The earlier league win against New Zealand (3-0) was a precursor that India had the resilience to close down teams building a fortress like defence. Australia was not at their best, yet they had enough fire-power to raise levels when required and in the end win comfortably.
Australia move to seven points from three matches within striking distance of yet another Azlan Shah final. India sit on four points with two matches in hand, a draw or defeat in any could take away the satisfaction of playing the season’s first big final.
After the match, Indian coach Roelant Oltmans, said, “It’s not about playing a close game with Australia. It’s about winning against them.” India played Australia seven times in 2016 winning only once, that too in the first Test of the two-Test series in Victoria. India won that match 3-2 with goals from Affan Yousuf. In that period across tournaments, Australia scored 25 goals against us, the worst defeat (5-1) coming at the league stage of the 2016 Azlan Shah. India scored 12 goals; six of those goals were scored in the Test series showing a mindset that in tournaments we do crack.
There is no doubt that Australia is our bogey team. In the Olympics, we have played 10 times, winning only thrice with two draws and five losses. In the World Cup, we have played eight times, won once, drawn once and lost six times. In the Champions Trophy, we have played 15 times, winning twice, drawing thrice and losing 10 times. In the Commonwealth Games, we have played five times and lost all matches. And now here at the Azlan Shah, we have played 15 times with India winning thrice, one draw and Australia victorious 11 times.
There is a psychological burden that the India team carries against Australia. Somewhere at the back of the mind, embedded in the soul, it ticks away like a clock reminding us of our frailties against a team that may be passing through a transition after the Rio Olympics, yet has enough skill and power to beat us.
Australia’s coach Colin Batch, a member of the '86 Australian World Cup winning team, said he was happy with the way Australia played and that he was confident that Australia would improve with time. “There were periods that India played well,” said Batch. “But we were able to change the momentum.”
It was Australia who set the pace in the beginning before India took control in the midfield, gave Harmanpreet Singh a chance to move on the right flank and overlap with Pardeep Mor forcing their defence back thus creating space in the middle which was exploited by Sardar Singh and Manpreet Singh, the captain of the match. There were periods where India would have scored.
Akashdeep Singh had two deflections hurrying past the post. And once Akashdeep played in tandem with Mandeep, who just wasn’t allowed space to either take a reverse hit or even pass. SV Sunil again had an off day. It’s worrying that a forward with that kind of speed and skill is not able to leave a mark. The blow came when PR Sreejesh lunged forward and twisted his knee. He hobbled off and Akash Chikte took his place.
Oltmans later felt that it wasn’t exactly a body blow to India’s chances in the match. “It’s too simplistic a reasoning. It has to do more with execution of the game plan. After we were leading, we did not continue playing the way we were doing before.” The Indian coach didn’t offer an explanation for that.
However, Australia showed patience and took their chances on the right flank and also by playing in from the middle. The man-of-the-match may have gone to Eddie Ockenden but the player who drove the Aussie attacks and broke the Indian midfield was Tom Craig. The Australian, who plays for Kalinga Lancers in the Hockey India League, showed his ability to cover a lot of ground, was defensively strong, had some great mid-range shots combined with some terrific intensity.
In the third quarter, Craig defended almost at the edge of the Australian striking circle, moved into midfield finally ending up in the Indian striking circle to almost score off a deflection. India missed a similar player. They have one in Manpreet but surprisingly the captain of the day decided to leave his mojo back at the hotel.
Oltmans was right when he said, “I think you will agree that until we scored our goal, we played fantastic. After the first two minutes, we controlled the game. We had good attacks. But after we led, it started going down. You know that Australia is always looking to turn the momentum around and they did.”
It was a lovely turn of pace that gave India the lead in the 26th minute. Harmanpreet found yards of free space and he sped in, turned and found himself in the Australian striking circle. His shot hit Andrew Philpott’s stick with the deflection headed towards the goal. It seemed that Mandeep had the last touch. But officially, the goal was awarded to Harmanpreet; the reasoning being that it had entered the Australian goal.
India at this stage had territorial advantage. Sardar was playing well and his skills had the Australians worried. Maybe, at this stage, a midfield trio of Sardar, Harjeet and Manpreet could have pushed harder and tightened the screws around Australia. But the substitutions hardly brought the three together. The rhythm and momentum of keeping the World Champions in a defensive frame of mind was lost.
Two minutes before the second quarter finished, Chikte made a good save of Australia’s second penalty corner. But a field play saw him take a shot on the pads. The rebound rolled away to his right and before Mor or any other defender could react, Ockenden had tapped it in. It was a brilliant piece of opportunism. It was still anybody’s game. At the end of two quarters, the scores were tied 1-1.
Four minutes into the third quarter, 34th minute, Australia took the lead. Matthew Swann couldn’t stop the fifth penalty corner cleanly but reacted swiftly to retrieve the ball and send it to Craig standing right in the middle of the circle. Craig squeezed it between Chikte’s pads. Yet again, Australia had created a goal from nothing.
India, as a team, is very structured and defensively sound so these blips during crucial moments came as a surprise. Instead of raising their levels and fighting back, the intensity slipped and suddenly Australia had a grip on the match.
The slip-shod defending in the 51st minute, fourth quarter, showed that spirits were flagging and probably there were tired limbs around. Tom Wickham made his move from the right flank and ran through the middle of the Indian striking circle with the goal on his right. He slipped past not just one but five defenders before crunching a reverse hit that beat Chikte. It was a wonderful goal, conjured out of thin air. Oltmans felt India were unlucky with the third goal. “From our point of view it was a clear foot from one of the Australian players before the goal was scored,” he said.
India pulled off Chikte with around six minutes left in the fourth quarter and Rupinder Pal Singh took the field with a bib. But Australia were not be denied and won the year’s first encounter with India quite comfortably.
“Australia is quite a good team as we all know so to lose against a very good team is part of the game,” said Oltmans. “We have seen also that in quite a number of games (in the past), we did match Australia. But in the end it is not about matching. It is about winning.” Or maybe, what Oltmans left unsaid was the need to demonstrate some steel in losing situations and haul yourself back into contention.