By the time India take the field against South Africa on Wednesday, they will have completed close to 500 training sessions with World Cup as the sole objective. The players have been taken care of – decent financial remuneration for attending national camps through the year at top-notch facilities, brand new kits and frequent matches against high-quality opponents. South Africa, on the other hand, had their first World Cup specific training session last Wednesday, after they landed in Bhubaneswar.
Their players — some lawyers, some salesmen – have to shell out 10,000 South African Rand each (roughly Rs 50,000) to ensure they could even make this trip. Their coach Mark Hopkins and his support staff aren’t paid a penny for their services.
The contrast between the two sides gives India’s low-key opener against South Africa an interesting narrative. It’s a match the hosts should win comfortably on paper. But games like these have proven to be a banana skin for India in the past. And when you take into account the first-match anxiety that the players are expected to face, the tie will only get trickier.To add to the mystery, not much is known about this South African side.
Paucity of funds means they have played just nine matches this year. After Commowealth Games, they had to wait till November for their next competitive match – a test series against minnows France.
“We are probably one of those teams that opposition has less videos of. Not all of our players play in the European league. We don’t play as many test matches as the other teams I think. There are advantages in that,” Hopkins said.
India coach Harendra Singh expects their strikers to make runs behind the Indian defence. But in a practice match against Holland on Tuesday night, South Africa showed impressive pace and creativity in the final third. Their 22-year-old midfielder Nduduza Lembethe looked sharp with his passes while veterans Julian Hykes, Rhett Halkett and Austin Smith controlled most of the possession among themselves.The intensity of the World Cup opener is, of course, going to be much higher.
So will the pressure – India are known to press high, and quick, especially against opponents ranked lower than them.From India’s perspective, a win would not just calm down their nerves but keep their hopes alive of topping the group, which also comprises Belgium and Canada.
Both these teams have troubled India in the recent past. The memories of Rio Olympics, where Canada frustrated India and held them to a draw and Belgium came back from a goal down to knock them out, are still fresh. In that sense, the importance of winning the opening match cannot be stressed more for India, who’ve set semifinal as their realistic target.
It’ll be interesting to see how India pace themselves in this tournament. At the Asian Games, they rushed out of the blocks, drubbing every opponent that came their way before stumbling against a half-decent Malaysia, who set themselves up defensively and hit India on the counter. Harendra said his team will not sacrifice its attacking style no matter who the opponent is. “We won’t compromise on that. We want to think a step ahead of the opponents,” he said.
But more than tactics, one gets a sense that the outcome of Wednesday’s game will depend on whether India are able to hold their nerves.
Playing in front of packed crowds in India, the team has been guilty of playing to the gallery instead of sticking to the plan. That has often scripted their own downfall.Harendra assured the mistakes of past will not be repeated again. He is not the first coach to make such a promise. His predecessors, too, were as bullish early on in their stint until the frustration of players’ inability to stick to a plan eventually got to them. An Indian fan will hope this time, the story will be slightly different.