FIH Pro League 2020: A rapidly improving Indian side faces Australia's evergreen brilliance in double-header in Bhubaneswar

Jitendra Nath Misra

India's hockey rivalries are mainly situated in the past, filled with nostalgia and despair. India feels entitled no more, living on the hope of a turnaround in the sport. Australia has strangled India into serial defeats. Other hockey powers- Germany, the Netherlands, Britain- have left India behind after 1972. Late starters Belgium have stamped their dominance. The hubris surrounding Indian hockey makes it difficult for facts to shine for themselves.

Australia has a dominating record against India €" 128 games, 84 victories, 23 defeats, 21 draws, according to Hockey Australia. FIH data shows India has won only two knock- out games against Australia  (at the 1960 and 1964 Olympics). The last time India defeated Australia in a major FIH tournament was at the Champions Trophy 2002. Since 1993, India has won only 1 series of  7. Decade- by- decade figures compiled by B.G. Joshi show India won 3 of 26 games in the 2000s', and 7 of 39 between 2010- 2019. Even with the improvement, India remains far behind Australia.

What do Australians think about the decline of Indian hockey?

Former Australian player and coach Richard Charlesworth writes in Sundeep Misra's book Forgive Me Amma:

"The real decline started in Montreal when our young Aussie team defeated the reigning world champions 6- 1. The score flattered us but the shock was a real dent in the confidence of the Indian team €¦ Obviously it didn't just suddenly happen but we saw it coming and once the spell was broken, the pace of decline seemed to accelerate after the 80s €¦ Perhaps it was merely the case that India stood still, while other nations progressed faster."

Yet, Australians think of India as a worthy rival in hockey. Why?

The answer lies in politics. As geopolitical chums, India and Australia are near-allies. They cooperate to keep the maritime commons in the Indo-Pacific secure. Australians are writing new narratives for India, as a rising power and benign regional stabiliser. Part of the unfolding story is a putative sporting rivalry. "India is an amazing country that is rising in wealth and influence, and that comes across in the way their approach to cricket has changed," says Peter Dickson.

In hockey, too, Australia concedes to Indian power. Australia was to "adopt elements of the Indian game, and develop a uniquely Australian version of hockey," says Hockey Australia on its website. Hockey Australia and Hockey India have signed an MoU on hockey exchanges, as equals. Indians (such as coach Balkrishan Singh, and the Anglo- Indians who migrated to Australia) taught Australians hockey. Former Indian coach Michael Nobbs has stories about Indians introducing the craft Down Under.

Yet the truth is that Australia has moved on, with its hybrid hockey, combining Indian skills with a European power, while India struggles to develop its niche.

With the reset in geopolitics, is Indian hockey moving on to better days?

When a major tournament approaches, Indians strike optimistic tones about the nation's chances. Players inject themselves into the discussion. There is already chatter in the media about reaching the semi-finals or even the finals of the Tokyo Olympics.

Compare the resumes, and India has recent achievements under its belt.

Fourth-ranked India have won a gold medal in the Asian Games (2014), two silver medals in the Champions Trophy (2016, 2018), and two bronze medals in the World League (2014- 2015 and 2016- 2017).

The Kookaburras won gold medals at the 2016 and 2018 Champions Trophy,  the 2018 Commonwealth Games, the 2019 Oceania Cup, and the Pro League 2019. With 16 victories out of 21 games in 2019, Australia has a back-and-forth battle with Belgium for the number one spot.

Surely, India needs a new approach to win?

In human affairs, we cannot go on doing the same thing and expect different results, as External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, delivering the 4th Ramnath Goenka Lecture 2019, said. What is new in India's tactics and mindset? It is hard to tell.

When the Indian team earned victories in Europe ahead of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, hockey followers gasped at coach Balkrishan Singh's "total hockey." It seemed India had found the code to unlock European dominance. Yet, India stood 7th at Barcelona.

With India's improvement pitted against Australia's brilliance, what might happen at the Pro League games at Bhubaneswar on 21-22 February?

"It's going to be a tricky tour. India have played very well at home so far and had some good results over the Netherlands and Belgium, so they will be a tough couple of matches and it will be interesting to see how we cope with this emerging Indian team who are also in our Pool in Tokyo," says Australia's chief coach Colin Batch. India "are playing some of their best and most consistent hockey in years," asserts the FIH in a preview of the games.

Will India have home advantage?

"This will be about assessing our guys in what will be pretty challenging conditions against a strong opposition who will be playing at home," says Batch. "They have a very noisy crowd that rallies behind them as well so that's another element we have to deal with. We have played in front of it in the past, so we don't see it as a negative and it will be a similar environment to what I expect Tokyo to be like," Batch asserts.

Since Australia is a self- declared exponent of playing to win, and victories on aggregate will determine the final standing (there is no grand final), the intensity will be high. A drawn game must be decided by a shoot out, hence prepare to watch aggressive and exciting hockey. Still, the two teams will be careful not to reveal "secret weapons" in an Olympic year.

The Indian team is well balanced, yet suspect in defence and shots at goal. Australia is serially ruthless against teams showing weakness. This sets the context for the games.

Batch says India "are one of the improving sides of the past 12 months." True, because India have had a good start in the Pro League, earning 3 victories in 4 games against higher-ranked Belgium and the Netherlands. But Australia have an excellent record at the Kalinga Stadium, where they haven't faced defeat in regulation time since the 2014 Champions Trophy. Having won 22 of 30 games against India since 2013, India will need something special to put it across Australia.

Also See: FIH Pro League 2020: When and where to watch India vs Belgium, coverage on TV and live streaming on Hotstar

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