The ongoing five-match hockey series between India and host Australia is, while reinforcing some of the visitors’ worst fears, going some distance in fulfilling a purpose.
Prior to the series that Australia currently leads 2-0, the Indian team’s coach Graham Reid had said that it’s always good to play higher ranked teams as part of one’s growth. Australia is ranked No. 1 in the world by the International Hockey Federation (FIH) while India is fifth.
“You have to be afraid to fail in order to succeed,” Reid said over the phone a day before the Indian contingent left for Australia. “You need to be able to play these good teams. To play against Australia is a great opportunity especially before the World Cup. We needed to have this tour to help us desensitise, try different combinations and in finalising selection.”
Australia beat India 7-4 at Adelaide on Sunday following a 5-4 win on Saturday to go ahead in the series, but neither of the matches were completely one-sided. For example, the scores were level in the first match before Australia got a winner with seconds left for the final hooter. India pulled one back on Wednesday, winning the third match 4-3 to keep the series alive.
While the results so far are not surprising, considering Australia beat India in the last two major tournaments they played—7-0 in the Commonwealth Games final this year and 7-1 in the Tokyo Olympics last year—the margins this time around have been more encouraging.
Reid admitted before going on tour that recent results, like the Commonwealth Games and the Olympics, do make Australia seem intimidating. “One of the objectives (of the five-match series) is to bring it down to earth and understand that while Australia are a good team, everyone at this level is beatable.
“Before a major tournament, you want to get in good form. You want to play well, move and handle the ball well. We will make mistakes but we also need to play against different teams to adjust tactics and the way we play.”
He also believes that the fitness levels of both teams are on par, though it has for long appeared that India may be weaker on that aspect. “They (the Australians) have a different kind of athleticism,” Reid said. “The Dutch, for example, are three times in size. The Aussies are big and robust. We also have smaller, more agile players who do different things. We can’t pretend to be seven feet tall but we can provide agility, acceleration. I don’t look at the physical aspect and think we are underdone.”
India’s form going into the Australia series, though, was encouraging. The team won two of its four matches (with one loss) in the 2022-23 FIH Pro League in October-November in Bhubaneshwar. India sit on the top of the table with Germany but unlike the other top teams currently in the League, India have both scored (15) and conceded (12) more goals, indicating to a more attacking and thereby open style of play.
“It possibly is,” Australian Reid said in response to the question of being more attacking. “That comes around to the fact that teams are trying new defences, different ways of defending. Last year, we played with 31 different athletes. That’s how you broaden your squad, build sustained success, so you have ample backup should one fail.”
He said that while it’s easier to play defence and nullify what the opponent is trying to do, he doesn’t like to coach like that. “It’s against the Indian DNA as well. We like to attack. I am saying ‘we’ now even though I have been here (in India) only a few years. I don’t have to teach the players anything foreign to go forward. When you go forward, you open at the back. But we have to try to make sure we have counter control. That is tough to do in getting that balance right.”
“I would like this (Australia) tour to help set a frugal, tighter balance.” He said that while the outcomes would be better (in the Pro League) if he played the same 18 players, but he would not get to build that base needed for bigger events like the Olympics and next year’s Asian Games.
One of the objectives of the Australia series is to prepare for the FIH World Cup from 13 to 29 January 2023 in Bhubaneshwar and Rourkela. India has only one gold medal from the World Cup ever, in 1975 Kuala Lumpur, besides a silver and a bronze. India finished sixth the last time the event was held in 2018, in Bhubaneshwar.
“From a point of view of prolific results compared to the Olympics, everything pales for India,” said Reid. “It’s a hard bar to set. The World Cup is at home and adds a dimension to it. It will be exciting to play in a stadium purpose-built in the modern era of hockey. It has negative aspects because of that pressure of playing at home. We cannot control those things, like people’s expectations, but what we can change is how we prepare and expectation from ourselves has to be high.”
India’s next matches in Australia are this weekend, on 3 and 4 December. It’s been a while since the Olympic bronze medal reinforced India’s position as a team of substance, but with the effects of Tokyo waning and the next big event coming up, the players will have to reset their goals. “The legacy of that (Olympics) is you have to evolve and we trying to do that for the last 12 months. You need an injection of younger players and we have tried to do that so it brings spark and creativity,” said Reid.
Some of that spark may yet help turn this Australia series around.