India-Australia clash will be a free-flowing contest (Preview of India’s group)

February 22nd, 2010 - 8:20 pm ICT by IANS  

By Anand Philar
Australia, the perennial title favourites, are the biggest hurdle for India in the 12th men’s Hockey World Cup, and against these 1986 champions there is no place to hide. Since finishing third at the 1978 edition, the Aussies have always figured among the top four in the World Cup. And there is no cause to believe that the scene will be any different this time.

In a curious twist of fate, Australia is being coached by Ric Charlesworth, captain of the 1986 squad that defeated hosts England in the final. The legendary Charleswoth was in the running to take charge of the Indian team a couple of years ago, but he departed in a huff after a humiliating experience with the authorities dithering over his appointment for months on end.

Knowing Charlesworth, he would be out to prove a point when his highly talented team takes on India on the night of March 2 and for sure, the Aussies would not be in a charitable mood.

Publicly, the coach might not indulge in any mind games and opt for diplomacy, something he is adept at, given his background as a member of parliament for 10 years. But for sure, the multi-faceted Charlesworth would be pulling out all stops when the game gets underway.

As such, India can expect a bruising and somewhat physical encounter with Australia whose line-up is the envy of all. With FIH Player of the Year Jamie Dwyer, whose goal fetched Australia their only men’s Olympic gold medal in 2004, leading from the front, and the likes of Eddie Ockenden and Des Abbot for support, the Aussies pack quite a punch that could well knock out any opponent, much less India.

The India-Australia game could turn out to be one of the most beautiful matches of the tournament given the style of play employed by the two teams. The Aussies play a free-flowing game based on searing pace, but that presents India, freed of tight man-to-man marking employed by the Europeans, an opportunity to put together moves leading to some exciting end-to-end play.

However, India have beaten Australia just once in the World Cup and that was in 1978, but have lost four times. Given the relative strengths of the teams, India’s best hope would be to force a draw that, in the current scenario, would be akin to a victory.

For all their might and balance, the Aussies have struggled to shake off the tag of “chokers” after consecutive losses in the final to Germany in 2002 and 2006. In both these World Cups, the Kookaburras looked the best side and played at a level that was mind-boggling only to fumble at the final hurdle.

This time around, Australia would be coming in to the World Cup on the back of their spectacular triumph in the 2009 Champions trophy where they demolished the opposition. But for the top teams, it is the World Cup, besides the Olympics, that matters.

As for India, they need to be at the top of their game against the Aussies who are known and feared for their early strikes and subsequent consolidation. If anything, India’s realistic target in this game would be to come away with a draw and that is something easier said than done.

Australia in World Cup (10 appearances): Winners in 1986; second in 2002, 2006; third in 1978, 1982, 1994; fourth in 1998; fifth in 1975; eighth in 1971.

India in World Cup (11 appearances): Winners in 1975; 3rd in 1971; 2nd in 1973; sixth in 1978; fifth in 1982, 1994; 12th in 1986; 10th in 1990, 2002; ninth in 1998, 11th in 2006

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