It was not surprising that India stood exposed during their 2-5 rout against Australia in the men's Hockey World Cup Tuesday night. The lack of exposure against the top teams in the past year highlighted many inherent weaknesses in the Indian team that were covered up by their 4-1 success against a mediocre Pakistan on the opening night.
Expectedly, the Indians were cramped for want of space due to some close marking by the Aussies who then used their superior fitness to set a scorching pace and maintained it through the 70 minutes to overrun their opponents.
Tuesday night, the Indians did not do anything different from the Pakistan game. It was attack from the start and they tried to keep pace with the Aussies. It was not long before they ran out of steam. Two goals down by the seventh minute proved knockout punches. Despite the fight Indians put up to score twice, the damage was irreparable.
In the past, rarely have Indian teams shown the special ability to raise their game. One can think of the 4-1 drubbing they handed out to the Netherlands in the 1996 Olympic qualifier in Barcelona. The Dutch went on to win the gold medal at the Atlanta Games a few months later!
That has been one of the standout performances by an Indian team, apart from their showing in the 2003 Champions Trophy in Amstelveen when they led 3-0 with seven minutes left only to lose 3-4 to the Dutch in a rip-roaring game that ended in controversy.
Apart from the two instances, Indian teams have always struggled against opponents who used pace and first-time passes like the Aussies did Tuesday night. Part of India's problems lie in slow recovery and mobility, especially in the defence where players tend to remain static while ball watching rather than covering their rivals.
The Australians thrive on a solid start, and conceding an early goal to them is inviting disaster. Once they get into the flow, the Aussies can overrun any team. Indians would be better off watching the tapes of 2002 and 2006 World Cup finals where Germany out-thought Australia who until then had looked the best team in the tournament.
The German ploy of keeping possession and stifling the Aussies in the midfield fetched them the desired results, especially in 2002 when barely 48 hours earlier Australia had flattened the Dutch 4-1 in one of the most spectacular displays of attacking hockey ever seen in the World Cup.
But then, it is far too much to expect Indians to keep possession through clever ball rotation for long periods as their attacking instincts eventually take over. Back in 1994, coach Cedric D'Souza drilled it into the players to keep possession on the simple theory that the opponent can only score if he has the ball. The team finished a creditable fifth.
Old habits die hard -- or in the case of Indian hockey, they never do. Tactics and strategies require a high level of thinking besides patience and discipline to execute. A succession of coaches have tried and failed in the past. It remains to be seen whether Jose Brasa would be any more effective in implementing his ideas.
There is still far too much of individualism in the national team. Such skills more often than win applause but not the match, as was the case in the 1986 World Cup where Mohd Shahid, India's latter-day Dhyan Chand, was rendered ineffective as he was repeatedly boxed in by a ring of defenders who let him showcase his stick-work but denied movement.
At the moment, all is not lost for India, but the going will get tougher against opponents who would have settled down and revised their targets based on the results. The onus will be on India to up the ante and level of play. If the time has come to deliver, then this is it. There is no place to hide.