An 8-0 thrashing in the 2010 Commonwealth Games final in New Delhi, 4-0 in the 2014 CWG final, another 4-0 hiding in the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup final in 2016 and 6-2 in Hockey World League semifinals 2015 at Antwerp.
These have been the scoreline of matches in recent times when India has met the mighty Australia in the final of major hockey tournaments.
The two countries have clashed for the gold medal 14 times and the Kookaburras have emerged triumphant in 10 of them while two matches ended in draw (according to statisticians, results of matches decided in shoot-outs are entered as draws).
However, the 15th clash between these two countries in a final proved the best and a memorable one as Roelant Oltmans’ India matched the World No 1 move for move and even bettered the mighty Kookaburras in some aspects of the game to hold them goalless in regulation time in the Champions Trophy final at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London on Friday.
They eventually lost 1-3 in the penalty shootout, unlucky to miss out despite fighting back bravely. India missed three attempts out of four to lose the match despite some heroic attempts by goalkeeper skipper PR Sreejesh.
India may have lost the match; it was a great performance by the team in the final. Actually, it was India’s best performance ever in the Champions Trophy, bettering the bronze medal bagged in Amsterdam in 1982. That was thus far the only medal for India in 15 appearances in this prestigious competition. It was ironical that India’s silver medal, in their first appearance in the final of a world-class event in 36 years (after the 1980 Olympics Games final in Moscow), came in the penultimate edition of the competition which will be discontinued after 2018.
Whether India manages to better their performance in the last edition of Champions Trophy in 2018 or not, the team’s display in the final of the 36th edition puts the final among the best-ever matches in the history of the prestigious tournament.
Oltmans put his faith in young squad for the Champions Trophy, resting senior players like regular skipper Sardar Singh, forward Ramandeep Singh and defender Rupinderpal Singh among others, and his decision paid handsomely as India came up with their best performance in recent times. They started the tournament with a 3-3 draw with Germany, losing out on full points despite taking a handy lead. However, the team came back strongly to defeat hosts Great Britain and Korea and despite defeats to Australia and Belgium reached the final with some help from Great Britain who held Belgium to 3-3 draw on Thursday.
But the Indians looked totally transformed in the final against Australia. They had started well against the Kookaburras in the league match also, but disintegrated in the second half of the match. Though the Indian attack worked superbly in the preliminary stage of the tournament, defense proved their undoing as they conceded 11 goals to 10 they scored.
However on Friday, Oltmans’ boys put up a spirited display, defended superbly and for once dominated the reigning World and HWL Champions. They enjoyed possession, controlled the midfield, attacked in numbers and defended stoutly to deny the Kookaburras repeatedly.
Australia earned 10 penalty corners but could not convert any one of them. The absence of Chris Cirriello, among the best drag flickers in the world, through injury would have hampered them, but the way Sreejesh and VR Raghunath played, acting like the Great Wall of India, even he would have struggled to get past them.
Oltmans can take a lot of positives from his boys’ performance in the Champions Trophy.
However, it leaves him with a pleasant headache too as he will now have to sit down and decide his team composition for the Rio Olympics. Whether he should bring back Rupinderpal Singh or go ahead with Harmanpreet Singh, India’s top performer along with Sreejesh, Raghunath and SV Sunil? Should go ahead with the combination of Nikkin Thimmaiah, SV Sunil, Akashdeep Singh or give another chance to the experienced but profligate Ramandeep Singh?
Sreejesh, Raghunath, Sunil and Mandeep Singh, who top scored with three goals, were India’s best performers in London and if they manage their form at Rio, India will trouble their opponents.
The coach should definitely consider defender Surender Kumar and Pradeep Mor besides Harmanpreet for the mega event.These are some of the things Oltmans will have to sort out in the next few weeks.
However, one thing is for sure, if his boys manage to replicate their Champions Trophy performance at Rio, India could be a serious medal contender for the first time after 1980.