When India kicked off their FIH Pro Hockey League campaign against Netherlands last month, there were hardly any expectations from the team as coach Graham Reid had already made it clear that he was looking at the tournament just as preparation for the Tokyo Olympics, and that he would happy experimenting.
Four matches later, as the Manpreet Singh-led side gets ready to take on title holders Australia on the home turf the level of expectations would be much higher not just among the fans, but also the team members when the two teams face off on Friday and Saturday.
The hosts lost just one of those four matches and had given world champions Belgium a hiding in the first of the two games two weekends ago. And purely on the basis of those performances, Reid and the boys would be hoping to end their four year wait for a win over the team that has won 22 of their last 30 matches.
India last got the better of Australia during the 2016 Test series in Bendigo but since then, the former world champions have always been the team calling the shots.
But under former Australian player Reid, the Indian team has shown that they are hardly bothered with the reputation of their opponents or past results, and are willing to play an exciting brand of hockey that focuses purely on winning matches.
As things stand, India are third in the standings with eight points and have two matches in hand over leaders Belgium (14 points) and Netherlands (11 points). The Aussies are two points behind in fifth place. And the Indians would be keen on grabbing full points from their final two home encounters before they head out for a series of away matches against Germany and Great Britain.
And for that to happen, Indian goalkeepers PR Sreejesh and Krishan Pathak would once again be at their best against a side that has always enjoyed playing at the Kalinga stadium.
Australia’s strong record
Colin Batch’s Australia have an imperious record at the Kalinga Stadium, a venue where they have not suffered a defeat in regular time since a semi-final loss against Germany in the 2014 Champions Trophy.
The Australians were unbeaten in all six matches on the way to claiming the title at the 2017 Hockey World League Final, and won five of their six matches at the Odisha Hockey Men’s World Cup 2018, with only the Netherlands getting the better of them in a semi-final shoot-out.
The Kookaburras did not start their campaign well but would be high on confidence after hammering Great Britain 5-1 in their last game before heading to India. The visitors came to Bhubaneshwar early and have been training for about a week to allow the team to acclimatise and be prepared for the Indian challenge.
Reid has made wholesale changes to the squad in the last four matches and played Pathak and Sreejesh in alternate quarters to give both of them equal playing time. The strategy has also kept all the players on their toes as everyone wants to impress the coach and the selection committee as the countdown for the Tokyo Olympics is well underway.
The one area that would be causing a headache for Reid would be the number of penalty corners the Indians conceded against Belgium. They would have been thankful to the goalkeepers who kept away most of those threats but expecting them to come up with similar performances game after game would be too much to ask.
Going forward, the Indians have done well to create from both flanks and the speed of SV Sunil and Gurjant Singh would be the key to finding those gaps in the Australian defence.
Reid, obviously, will be thinking of tying the loose ends against the Australians, but even he would be willing to give anything to win the two matches and make a statement.
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