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Hockey World Cup: India will now face huge Australia challenge

Sardar Singh's India take on world champs Australia in their last league match

The Hague: Nobody understands the theatrical dynamic of a hockey match between Australia and India, at the moment, better than Indian captain Sardar Singh. Sweat pouring down his face and neck, right after the India win over Malaysia, he was asked about the upcoming tie on Monday against reigning World Champions Australia. Breathing a little hard, taking his time, he smiled and said, "It's a good match-up. We will do our best and go all out. The boys will give their best."

Akashdeep Singh is congratulated by his teammates after their 3-2 win over Malaysia on Saturday.
Akashdeep Singh is congratulated by his teammates after their 3-2 win over Malaysia on Saturday. 

What more would you want from an Indian captain who after two close defeats then came back into the draw with a draw and a win. Now he stands before the best team in the tournament and, of course he has got to be positive. In this World Cup, Australia is the story. In fact, they have been 'the story' for quite some time now. India, one of the chapters or pages in this edition of the World Cup would try and unravel the code behind the winning attitude of the Aussies or look them in the eye and hope they can carve out a win or a draw over 70 minutes.

The word 'tough encounter' for Australia would be an understatement. Ric Charlesworth's team is virtually striding towards the title. They have flaws. Ric says, "Yes, we need to score more goals and increase the pace of the game." What one of the greatest coaches in the world is basically saying, "I want to take this game beyond any team. I simply want to win by a mile."

In the path lies India. Australia has already entered the semi-finals but a clean record is important for Australia. Honestly, would they be losing sleep over playing India? India's High-Performance Director Roelant Oltmans moves around the Kyocera Stadium with an umbrella in hand. And a lot of self-belief in his heart. "Of course, they would be worried," he explains. "And why shouldn't they be? India is playing well and we will try and play to a structure and a plan. We can bring them down."

In the last five matches that India has played with Australia, we have lost all five. We scored six goals and conceded 22. Any other team would approach Australia with the attitude of a kindergarten kid taking on the high school bully. "Goals satisfy us," says Ric. "More goals satisfy us more." It's a typical Ric, given into bravado. But he has a team that can deliver. India will play more on an adrenaline called, 'Can we?'

Oltmans doesn't want anyone to go back into the past. "It's a perception of the media that we have defensive lapses," he says. "I think we have been of the better teams defensively in this tournament." Go back to the middle of January, 2014, India actually led 2-0 against Australia before the world champions regained their touch to smash in seven. It's almost the same team that will be lined up against India.

Glen Turner has a menacing look with a shot that can drill a neat hole through all the protective gear of Sreejesh. Jamie Dwyer is wily while Robert Hammond can tweak the Indian defence the other way. "But we forget that most of the Australians play in the Hockey India League," says Oltmans. "And we need to understand the Indian players are playing with them and against them. Also they are beating them too."

There is no question that it would be like watching a contest between two disparate groups of teams. One that takes a win for granted. And the other who would walk in knowing they are the underdogs. Sports history is littered with examples of the under-dog winning the fight. But tomorrow is neither a final nor a fight between teams to grab a last semi-final slot. Yet India had everything to fight for.

Leave pride, national sentiment aside. Oltmans believes every player has a right to shed blood. Put everything on the line. But more than the rhetoric, it's the challenge that should excite
India. Floris Jan Bovelander, one of the greatest penalty corner exponents, believes, its time India exercises its right to be among the elite. "They can do it," he says. "Maybe, not at the moment. But they should and need to come back to the top."

Bovelander also believes that Australia will be World Champions once again. "They can raise their levels and they shock opponents into submission." Apart from the player to player confrontation that would make for some good viewing, it's also the Aussie coach Vs the Aussie coach syndrome that should add some spice. Terry deflects the question. "That's not the way, coaches in the hockey world work," trying very hard to under-play the rivalry. "He (Ric) has his way of doing things and I have mine."

Oltmans adds to the pot. "The styles are different," he explains. "They use a lot of pace. But as you would have seen, we like controlling the game and flow." India would be impressed by Argentina. The South-Americans are a match away from the semi-finals. One of the teams they scalped was Olympic Champions Germany, a team India took apart in the World Hockey League. So inspiration is just a thought away.

India doesn't appear lost. Neither do they reek of macho nonsense. They know they need to climb step by step. The match against Australia will be taken as a step in the right direction; defeat or victory doesn't alter the idea of a work in progress.

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