We knew it was going to be tough. Not many expected anything but an Australia win. Expecting a draw was being optimistic. However, on Friday, the India men’s hockey team showed flair and grit as they played out a 1-1 draw against the defending champions in their Hockey World League Final opening game at the Kalinga Stadium, Bhubaneshwar.

Mandeep Singh put India ahead in the second quarter with Australia’s Jeremy Hayward equalizing immediately via a penalty corner (PC). Both teams had their chances of taking the lead thereafter but it wasn’t to be. However, India coach Sjoerd Marijne will be proud of his boys.

Here are the talking points from Friday’s game that had its moments.

Aggressive India

Australia, known for their aggressive approach, were expected to get sprint off the blocks in search of an early goal. Former Hockey Olympian Rahul Singh had told The Field: “Australia always go for goal in the opening 10 minutes of the game. If they get a goal in seven or eight minutes, then they go for another. However, if you hold them for 10 to 15 minutes then you can control the game. Against Australia you have to be careful during the start.”

As it turned out, the opposite happened as India went hard at the Australian defense that completely took them by surprise. Akashdeep Singh, Gurjant Singh and Mandeep Singh were looking to draw first blood. Australia goalkeeper Tyler Lovell had a hard time as he pulled out save after save. Eventually it was Mandeep who put India ahead in the second quarter. India dominated possession in the first quarter – as high as 72%. Clearly, India wanted to make a statement.

Finishing a concern

However, India’s forward line lacked the finishing touch as they squandered numerous opportunities that came their way. In the first quarter, they had four shots on goal out of which only one was a penalty corner.

India’s circle entries in the first quarter were brilliant as they breached the point thrice compared to Australia’s two attempts. Akashdeep, Gurjant, Mandeep, SV Suni, Lalit Upadhyay made the inroads towards the opposition’s goalpost but failed to nail it in the end.

At the end of the game, India had 11 shots on target compared to Australia’s eight attempts. Even in circle entries, India were way ahead with 19 compared to Australia’s 11. Coach Marijne will have to address this issue before they take on England on Saturday.

“In the beginning of any tournament the first match is always difficult,” Marijne said after the match. “But I was really happy because we created chances in the beginning of the match. We had two big opportunities. We played well in the first quarter and we need to continue like that.”

Rusty Rupinder

India defender Rupinder Pal Singh, who made a comeback into the side after an injury layoff, had a decent game. He, along with India’s backline, enjoyed a good day at the office – keeping Australia at bay is no mean feat.

However, Rupinder was rusty and the lack of time on the pitch was evident.

Even his penalty corner strikes were not up to the mark as none of them failed to see the back of the opponent’s net.

This leads us to another issue that Marijne has to address, India’s penalty corner conversion. India had four PC chances with Rupinder taking three of them. None of them were converted. Harmanpreet Singh’s attempt was also fruitless due to an error by Birendra Larka.

However, Rupinder did impress with the long passes and getting the better of the Australian strikers whenever required.

Defense has their basics sorted

India, however, should be proud of their defensive effort on Friday. Harmanpreet, Dipsan Tirkey, Varun Kumar, Rupinder and Birendra Larka were exceptional at the back as they held their nerve and made sure none of the Australian strikers had a clear shot at goal. One could also see captain Manpreet Singh and Chinglensana Singh throwing their sticks behind the Australian strikers as rest of the midfield pushed forward.

The Indian defense did not let the Australian players create too many chances and made sure that they did not score on the counter-attack as well.

Australia could only manage to equalise via a PC. They too would be disappointed with their PC conversion as they managed to convert only one in six attempts. The Indian defense – which was in good form during the Asia Cup as well – has its basics right and will look to continue their impressive form as the tournament goes on.

Up next for India is the English team who are ranked seventh. England lost their opening encounter to Germany 2-0 and will look to come hard against India on Saturday.