Two matches, two hammerings. Nine goals conceded, just two scored. The story of India’s tour Down Under, however, goes beyond these numbers.
India, in the last three years, had been gradually catching up with Australia. Rather, they’d been closing down the margin of defeats. The 4/5-goal drubbings which became routine had been cut down a goal or two and on a couple of occasions, they forced tie-breakers as well. But all the hard work of the last three years seems to have come undone in just one week.
On Friday, India lost 5-2 to Australia in the second Test match in Perth. Despite the two goals – scored by Nilakanta Sharma and Rupinderpal Singh – it can be argued that India’s overall performance level had dropped on Friday compared to Wednesday’s first test, which they had lost 4-0. These are the heaviest defeats India have suffered to Australia in an official match since April 2016 when the team, coached by Roelant Oltmans, first lost 5-1 in the round robin stage of the Azlan Shah Cup in Malaysia and 4-0 in the final. In the three years that followed, India did not allow the former world champions to simply roll over them so easily.
India and Australia have played 10 matches since the 2016 Azlan Shah Cup final. India have won 1, drawn 3 (although they went on to lose two in shootouts) and lost six of them. However, most of the defeats have been very close, barely a one-goal margin. And there was a reason for that.
In most of those matches, India surprised the Australians with their aggressive approach and high-press style, choking them for space. They made good use of the possession, entered the semicircle with positive intent and made few errors. With a little bit of luck and precision, the scoreline could have been different in several matches, most notably in the two Champions Trophy finals – in 2016 and 2018 – that India went on to lose in shootouts.
What they dished out in the last four days was completely opposite. India played well in patches, especially in the first match, but lacked the sharpness, composure and class to trouble the Australians.
They looked vulnerable immediately after going down – on three occasions they allowed the second goal within five minutes of conceding the first. In the first test, Australia scored in the 15th and 20th minutes, followed by a goal each in the final two minutes of the game. On Friday, Australia netted their third goal in the 24th minute before scoring again in the 28th.
Much of the sloppiness can be attributed to the fact that India have barely played matches of this intensity this year since they opted out of the Pro League. While the Indian players were locked in a camp, stepping out only for the Azlan Shah Cup last month, Australia – who were ruthless and brutal – have been playing world-class opponents every week. In that sense, the two test matches will hold the team in good stead ahead of the Hockey Series Finals in Bhubaneswar next month, the first step towards securing Tokyo Olympics berth.
One can hardly point fingers at new coach Graham Reid for India’s performances in the two matches since he barely got a week with the players before they jet-setted to Perth. But he has got something to work with now. They lost the ball cheaply in the midfield, defended like amateurs and when they raided Australia’s ‘D’, the strikers lacked control and composure – basically, the same mistakes that have claimed the jobs of the last two coaches.
In his first assignment, Reid experimented with the team combination, which yielded mixed results. Midfielder Hardik Singh, not afraid to throw in tackles and win balls, was impressive in both matches.
Gursahibjit Singh, one of the best strikers at the national championships, showed sparks sporadically but a goal remained elusive. For all his promise, Vivek Sagar Prasad continues to underperform mysteriously in the national team set-up. Playing as a centre-half, he gets beaten way too easily, which puts the defence under a lot of stress. His error on Friday led to Australia’s second goal. Even in the first game, he lost the ball in the centre that resulted in a counterattack and penalty corner for Australia. One would expect him to ring in a few changes for the Hockey Series Finals but that tournament is likely to paper over a lot of cracks since India will be up against the likes of Russia and Uzbekistan in the group stage.
After a tough opening test, it’ll be an opportunity for Reid to get a closer look at how his players react in different scenarios. But it’ll hardly be the right yardstick. These two tests against Australia, instead, would give a realistic picture.