India’s journey in the Hockey World Cup, irrespective of its duration, will be on an obstacle-filled path. They need to top their group to save themselves the trouble of playing a crossover match to reach the quarterfinals.

And, if they fail, the young squad (with an average age of just over 22) will need to handle the pressure of playing a do-or-die game in a big tournament to just make the last eight.

And the lung opener against South Africa on Wednesday, the easiest match on paper in Group C, will be a pointer to judge whether Manpreet Singh and Co. are ready for the challenge.

World No 15 South Africa, ranked 10 places below India, were one of the five teams to beat India in the 2012 London Olympics. But several factors, especially the lack of monetary support, have hampered South African hockey. Reaching the World Cup itself was, for the South Africans, a big deal. So, it would be a near-miracle if they manage to beat hosts India at Kalinga Stadium.

The Indians, meanwhile, are in the midst of a six-match unbeaten streak, which began with their win against Pakistan in the Asian Games bronze medal play-off. The failure to win gold in Asian Games stabbed their morale. But the unbeaten run in the Asian Champions Trophy last month must have replenished their confidence.

Last five India vs South Africa matches

2014 Commonwealth Games India beat South Africa 5-2
2012 Olympics India lost to South Africa 2-3
2011 FIH Champions Challenge India beat South Africa 4-2
2011 FIH Champions Challenge India beat South Africa 7-4
2010 World Cup India beat South Africa 3-3 (2-1)
Source: FIH

In the pre-match media interaction, when Indian coach Harendra Singh was reminded of the Asian Games loss to Malaysia, he replied: “The fact is that all of us have forgotten the Asian Games defeat and you should also forget. We learn from history, gain experience but there is no point recalling it. We took collective responsibility. Now, we don’t even talk about it now in our meetings.”

Even if the South Africans appear easy on paper, the coach isn’t taking them lightly. He recalled the fairy-tale journeys of the Irish women’s hockey team and the Croatian men’s football team – considered underdogs – to their respective World Cup finals.

Having said that, Harendra will know pretty well that a failure to start strong against the lowest ranked team in the group will be disastrous and has promised to play aggressive hockey.

“I expect their (SA) strikers will try to break us. But we have strategies in place. It’s mixed results so far for us (this year). We won’t compromise on playing attacking hockey against any team. We want to think ahead of the opponents,” said Harendra.

This means the Indian team will have to be alert on the counters while trying to break the defences of a team that may simply park the bus and not allow any opportunities to penetrate against a team India has won just once in their four meetings in the World Cup. The other three matches ended in a draw.

The team will also have a large, raucous crowd behind them on Wednesday. Their knowledge of the playing surface, on which they’ve been training for over three weeks now, should also come in handy.

But South African coach Mark Hopkins doesn’t see these things as disadvantageous. “I see this as an opportunity to do well at the global stage,” he said. “Maybe there will be one or two South Africans in the crowd but they’ll be quickly drowned out. But as the host nation, the pressure’s on India as well.”