Ipoh, Malaysia: Out of title reckoning, a misfiring India would look to redeem some pride with an improved performance in their last league match but it would be easier said than done against world champions Australia in the 24th Azlan Shah Cup, here on Saturday.
The Azlan Shah Cup was not only new chief coach Paul van Ass’ maiden assignment after taking charge of the Indian team but also kick-started the country’s preparations for next year’s Rio Olympics.
But going by the performances so far, it is clear that India have a lot of work to do to become a competitive force in the Olympics, for which they have already secured a direct berth by winning a gold in last year’s Incheon Asian Games.
India have crashed out of the title race here after garnering just four points with one scrappy win and a draw out of four matches.
On the other hand, the Kookaburras, who are defending their title here, are on a roll and have sealed their final berth by registering four victories out of as many games.
The last time both the teams faced each, the result went in favour of Australia who sneaked a narrow 2-1 win over India to finish third in the FIH Champions Trophy in Bhubaneswar in December.
And tomorrow’s match gives India an opportunity to avenge that loss.
But looking at India’s performance in this tournament, it looks a distant dream and only time will tell if Van Ass’ wards have it in them to lift their spirits and salvage a positive result.
If they can at least hold Australia if not win tomorrow, it will act as a huge morale-booster for India, who were without a coach since October last year after Australian Terry Walsh’s unceremonious exit.
Van Ass took charge of the team barely four weeks ago and it would be unrealistic to expect a miracle performance from the Dutchman in his maiden assignment.
From day one, Van Ass has been looking at the Azlan Shah Cup to garner as much information as possible about the team and his real test would be the World League Finals at home in December this year.
“Every international game is important for us because every game gives me information to work on the areas and at the moment that is far more important than the result,” Van Ass had said.
As a matter of fact, the Indians did not play badly in the last four games but were undone by inconsistency.
What hurt India badly was that for the fourth straight game they were guilty of missing chances and their fragile backline conceded soft goals.
The execution of penalty corners too was not upto the mark. In the presence of two big drag-flick experts in VR Raghunath and Rupinder Pal Singh, India utilised just two out of the eight short corners that came their way against Canada yesterday.
Van Ass was candid enough to admit yesterday that India’s fragile defence is a major concern for him.
“What worries me is the defence. The defence worried me before I came to India. That is one of my first concerns. Our defence is too bad. I think we lost a lot of games in the end phase earlier as well as in this tournament,” he said after India laboured to a 5-3 win over a lowly Canada, his first win with the team.
“We are simply not strong (in defence). We tend to lose our head (in pressure situation). But every game gives us a lesson. Of course it’s great if you win and get a lesson.”
Going into tomorrow game, the only solace for India would be the marginal return to form of their forwardline, which finally showed some form by scoring three fine field goals.
Up against the toughest opponents, the India coach vowed to give Australia a tough fight tomorrow.
“I am looking forward to the next game against Australia. Australia is pretty strong and it is going to be a big challenge. I want to make it as difficult as possible for Australia,” Van Ass said.
Meanwhile in other games of the day, Korea will face New Zealand in a must-win encounter while Malaysia will be up against Canada.