FIH Pro League: Fearless India nick one away from Australia

That an India-Australia match ended as a high-scoring affair is barely news. But the fact that the result went in India’s favour is the hockey equivalent of the man-bites-dog analogy.

Pro League results always come with a huge caveat since it’s nothing but one big experimental ground for most teams. Notwithstanding that, India’s 5-4 win over Australia on Sunday is both eye-catching and morale-boosting. For, wins over Australia aren’t just rare but the lopsided rivalry between the two teams is littered with crushing defeats for India.

The last 10 meetings alone paint a sorry picture for India. Australia have been victorious in 8 of them, with one match ending in a draw. These haven’t been closely-fought games either. India have been pummeled in most, conceding 50 goals while scoring just 22.

It was to bridge this gap that former coach Graham Reid took his players Down Under last winter, in a bid to ‘sensitise’ them. The five-match series, Reid hoped, would make the players ‘used to’ facing Australia and remove the fear of them. Reid may no longer be there with the team but based on Sunday’s evidence, his methods seem to have made some impact.

One can argue that it was a second-string Australian side that India defeated. Indeed, only half-a-dozen players who finished fourth at the World Cup in January have returned to Rourkela for the Pro League games. But then again, India, too, wear a vastly different look, with 8 players from the World Cup squad not included for the mini-tournament against Germany and Australia.

And it was the newcomers who had a big say in Sunday’s outcome. Up front, where India have lacked a reliable goal scorer, Selvam Karthi – playing only his 10th international – gave a glimpse of what he’s capable of. In the 26th minute, the 21-year-old received a diagonal pass on his backhand just outside the ‘D’, pulled it towards the forehand and wrong-footed his marker in the process, shepherded the ball a yard forward and unleashed a thunderous strike from the top of the ‘D’ to find the top right corner of the goal.

It’s been a while since a young Indian forward has scored a goal of such calibre against an opponent like Australia. On the other end of the pitch, another 21-year-old was enjoying one of his best nights in an India jersey. Goalkeeper Pawan stood like a rock in face of waves of Australian attack, pulling off a string of remarkable saves, including one in the dying seconds, to ensure India did not squander the three-goal cushion they enjoyed at half-time.

Interim coach David John, looking at the big picture vis-à-vis the Paris Olympics, gave Pawan more playing time than veteran goalkeeper PR Sreejesh. And the young custodian did well to present himself as a reliable option after Krishan Pathak and Sreejesh, the current number 1 and 2 – though not necessarily in that order.

While the two young players will remember this night for long, the win wouldn’t have been possible without massive contributions from the big guns. Playmaker Hardik Singh, operating through the centre, continues to rise in stature and at present is one of the two pillars of the team. The second one is captain Harmanpreet Singh, who succumbed to the pressure during the World Cup but has found his goal-scoring form once again, scoring a remarkable hat-trick. His three rocket-like drag-flicks – two aimed low to the stick-side of the goalkeeper and one hovering around knee-length to the goalie’s left – were fierce and unstoppable.

Compared to the previous matches against Australia, what India did differently this time was that they played without fear, even after conceding in the third minute. Australia are the kind of team that, if you do not put pressure on them, will get their heads up, play powerful, precise passes that are tough to intercept and make the opponents chase. In the past, Reid had observed, Indians would come within 3m of the Australians and then hold; a habit he said that stemmed out of ‘part nerves, part intimidation, part not quite sure (what to do)’.

For the first 30 minutes on Sunday, India were fearless. They pressed high and were adventurous going forward, perhaps a template to follow for their future games against the Aussies. Of course, they almost threw away the match in the second half by going into their shell and allowing Australia to dictate. But then, this is a team that’s still a work in progress. The performance, especially in the first half, though will give the new coach Craig Fulton plenty to work with.

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