One of coach Graham Reid’s often-quoted philosophy is the ‘Fire bullets, then Cannon Balls’ concept developed by the author Jim Collins. The thinking being that to achieve a goal, you try different small ideas (bullets) before zeroing in on the one that works best and putting all your resources (canon ball) behind it.
India’s defence is something that Reid has focused on since their Commonwealth Games campaign ended with a 7-0 loss against Australia in the final. After evidently trying out various strategies in the recently concluded FIH Pro League mini tournament, Reid’s men take on Australia in a five-match series looking to zero in on their best strategy going into the FIH Men’s Hockey World Cup that starts in Odisha in just over a month.
“There is no better place to come than Australia for preparation for the World Cup,” Reid said ahead of the five-match series. “Australia’s way of play is very grounded in India. What’s great about this series is that both teams get to learn about the different skills that both bring to the table.”
For the Kookaburras, the matches against the Indian men will be their first after their victorious CWG campaign. While it will provide the Australians with some much-needed match-time going in to the World Cup, it will give India the opportunity to fine-tune the tactics the team has been working on over the last few months.
Defence: A work in progress
The Pro League matches against New Zealand and Spain saw Reid continue tinkering with his defence. However, going by their performances, it seems unlikely that Reid has fired his canon ball on a defensive system yet.
After their 4-3 win against New Zealand, Reid praised his side for being consistent with the intensity they displayed in the match. That, however, was not present in their next match as they lost 2-3 to Spain. Reid confessed that it was the mental intensity that India need to work on rather than the physical one.
“I’m not too concerned about the physical aspect,” Reid said in a press conference from Odisha during the Pro League mini-tournament, elaborating on what he meant by wanting good intensity across the match.
“We are fit enough and have that ability and that stamina. Therefore it is mostly a mental thing. It’s really just a matter of making sure that we are switched on every time we are on the pitch. That’s always the tough thing as a coach to try and get your team to do that. It’s a habit thing. It’s something we’ll need to keep working on. That’s what our focus will be.”
Ahead of those matches, Reid also spoke about preventing goal-scoring chances as a collective unit. However, India shipped in 12 goals in their four matches, the second-most among the six teams who have begun their Pro League season so far. More concerning was the fact that the defence conceded a whopping 33 penalty corners.
“That’s (conceding penalty corners) always one of the things that you look at to make sure that the team can’t,” Reid had said. “What I said after the match was that we gave them too many opportunities including penalty corners. That’s something we have been working on.
“I think the main thing is making sure that we understand the press we have. And we have been trying different things in the past month or so. Do we stick with those or do we move on to other things or do we go back to the core press that we have? That is the idea of these matches.”
While the Pro League matches highlighted the work India needs to do in defence, they also saw a possible new problem area developing. In the four matches, India received seven green cards and three yellow cards. In the entire 2021-’22 Pro League season, India received 18 green cards and only four yellow cards. Though a cause for concern, the ill-discipline had a positive in that India were able to still maintain their defensive shape despite giving up possession.
“We are still changing little bits and pieces depending on what the team does,” Reid said. “One of the things we learnt before the Olympics, we need games like these to understand what other teams will do to you. We can plan and do all the stuff we do in Bangalore with just us, or us versus the juniors. But having a coach look at your structure and try and beat it that’s what keeps changing.
“It’s an ongoing moving, living, breathing animal, the way that you defend because teams will try different things and that will work for them or won’t work for them. That’s the same for us. You can’t change too many things at once. It is like computer support. If you pull the plug out and you do this and do that, you wouldn’t know what actually works and what doesn’t work. It is an interactive process.”
Focus on World Cup
In Australia, India will face a stern test against a side which will also use the matches to figure out their strategies for the World Cup. The Kookaburras would not be lacking in intensity as many players will look to book their spot for the World Cup.
“It will be great competition for us…India is a really strong team and these will be the only matches we will play before the World Cup, so we’re delighted to have a team of India’s calibre to play against. We feel like we can take some strong steps in our preparation for the World Cup,” Australia coach Colin Batch said ahead of the series.
“Unlike the Olympics where we had 6-7 months training together, we haven’t had that leading up to the World Cup so the importance of these matches…the meetings and trainings we have between now and then will hopefully enable us to reach that level again. Selection for spots in the World Cup team are up for grabs in this series but we just want to play as well as we can and re-establish our connections and understandings on the pitch,” he added.
While his defence has been a work in progress, Reid should be pleased with how his attack has been humming along. And in Harmanpreet Singh, India boasts one of the best penalty corner specialists in the game. For India to have a shot at winning the World Cup next year, both need to work together.
“I think teams that are successful at World Cups and Olympics need to have both parts [field goals and set plays] working. I think we scored a lot of field goals in the CWG. But if you look at the semifinals and finals in the last 10 World Cups and 10 Olympics, they would have come down to PCs. You have to have both aspects of that working. It’s great to have someone like Harmanpreet but we have been working on variations. Hopefully we can have them rock and rolling at the World Cup,” Reid said.
Since their 7-0 humbling in the Commonwealth Games final, India have worked on rebuilding their defence. Ahead of a home World Cup, pitting themselves against the proverbial Goliaths of the game once again would be the best measure of India’s growth. The results won’t matter as much as the performances as both teams spar before the grand event on the horizon.
Goalkeepers: Krishan Bahadur Pathak, Sreejesh Parattu Raveendran
Defenders: Jarmanpreet Singh, Surender Kumar, Harmanpreet Singh (C), Amit Rohidas (V/C), Jugraj Singh, Mandeep Mor, Nilam Sanjeep Xess, Varun Kumar
Midfielders: Sumit, Manpreet Singh, Hardik Singh, Shamsher Singh, Nilakanta Sharma, Rajkumar Pal, Mohd. Raheel Mouseen, Akashdeep Singh, Gurjant Singh
Forwards: Mandeep Singh, Abhishek, Dilpreet Singh, Sukhjeet Singh
India matches timings and telecast details:
India vs Australia, 26th November from 1100 hrs IST.
India vs Australia, 27th November from 1100 hrs IST.
India vs Australia, 30th November from 1330 hrs IST.
India vs Australia, 3rd December from 1100 hrs IST.
India vs Australia, 4th December from 1100 hrs IST.