Hockey: Australia exhibit superiority but India don’t need wholesale changes

All it takes for the Australian men’s hockey team is just one quarter to prove their ruthless efficiency. At the 2022 Commonwealth Games final against India, it was the second quarter, where they scored three goals to run away with the match and subsequently win the gold medal after a 7-0 drubbing. On Saturday against India, it was the fourth quarter, when the score was 3-3 but Australia eventually won 5-4. On Sunday, it was the fourth quarter again, when the score was 4-3 in favour of Australia but they won the match 7-4.

Conceding 12 goals in two matches will not please India head coach Graham Reid, especially considering how defence was a big area of concern going into the series. Unlike what was seen in the Pro League matches however, there were no glaring mistakes leading to goals in the last two matches. So where did India go wrong?

India’s midfield no match for Australia
In the recent Pro League matches against Spain and New Zealand, India’s midfielders put in a strong performance. The likes of Hardik Singh, Manpreet Singh, Rajkumar Pal and Shamsher Singh ran the hard yards to track and tackle the opposition’s attacking players. Ball recoveries in the midfield were a key factor that resulted in a quick attacking moves for India.

Australia however, are a different (read higher) level to Spain and New Zealand. The movement of the ball from defence to attacking areas is quicker than most teams in hockey. They don’t just rely on running away with the ball in the midfield (although Tom Craig did a masterful job in this regard in the first match). They are excellent at executing killer passes into the circle and then applying the finishing touches with the goals. This is probably why India’s usual pressing tactics didn’t work, which left too many gaps open in midfield as well as attacking areas.

This was evident from the first goal of the first match. Craig won the ball, ran through the field, and passed it to Sharp Lachlan who nailed the finish with a powerful hit. Holding the ball or trying to dribble past the defenders and the goalkeeper instead? No – he saw the gap and went for the finish. A typical Australian goal, if there was one.

At least in the first match, Australia had to rely on penalty corners late in the game to win it. Their normal dominance was much more evident in Sunday’s match. Out of seven goals in total, Australia scored four field goals. Their second, fourth, fifth and sixth goals of the match were all the result of quick and right passes to the players with space around them and making no mistake with the finishing.

Should Reid be worried after what he saw in the two matches?
Again, giving away 12 goals from two matches, (in fact 19 goals in three games if one includes the CWG final) against Australia, doesn’t paint a healthy picture. But it’s important to take lessons from both the Australian series and the Pro League. If there are no matches after the Australian series, then India would’ve played against three nations before they began their campaign in January’s World Cup. That would mean playing a good number of games against quality opposition. Adjusting to each team’s style and formulating plans to dismantle their strengths will be as crucial as playing to their own team’s strengths.

“The biggest objective of this tour is to play well. To handle the ball well. We have strategies, but to make sure we execute them, to make sure we have consistency across quarters. You’re always developing the way you play, certainly in the way we play because it is always changing depending on what someone does to you. Maybe we change it up a bit, tweak that a little bit and hopefully that’ll make you stronger. Other times perhaps you need to try something different,” Reid told ESPN before departing to Australia.

The second part of his answer, about developing the playing style to adjust to the realities on the pitch gives a hint that he’s open to tweaks and changes. And to be clear, India don’t need wholesale changes. Reid ought to not be too worried from what he saw in the two matches, but how he’ll implement the tweaks will be interesting to see.