There was a moment midway through the first quarter of India's 1-1 draw in their World League Final opener against Australia in Bhubaneswar on Friday evening that typified both the work rate and the commitment of the hosts.
Having lost the ball during a furious attack down the right, strikers Mandeep Singh and Lalit Upadhyay dropped deep around the centre-line and surrounded an Australian ball-carrier. One of them dinked the ball around the opponent, the other checked his run for a split-second to ensure the ball was stolen, and then both rushed away, one with control of the ball and the other pushing wide into space.
"It was a tough match and being the first match, there was some pressure, but we gave it all we had. First line of defence is an attacker, (and) the more pressure we put then the more difficult it is for the opponent. Regaining the ball is the most important part of the game," said Mandeep, the lone scorer for India in the 20th minute, whose strike was soon cancelled out by a Jeremy Hayward penalty-corner seconds later.
Coach Sjoerd Marijne, who has been stressing the need for greater speed and spending less time on the ball felt the performance was satisfactory but that India needed to convert their chances.
"You always go into a match wanting to win. I am happy with the performance because when you have nine shots to two against the second-ranked team in the world, it means you played well," Marijne said. "We are playing better out of physical space. There are still some mistakes, but on the whole the other team was defending more today."
Poor finishing a worry
The only blots on the Indian performance, perhaps, were the lack of finishing early in the game, and the inability to score from penalty corners. Manpreet Singh, playing his 200th international for India, was sensational in midfield, spreading the ball around with ease and putting in interceptions when Australia tried to prize the Indian defence open. India used the flanks well, but Akashdeep Singh and Gurjant Singh were both denied by some alert goalkeeping by Tyler Lovell for Australia. All of India's PCs on the night were taken by the returning Rupinder Pal Singh, and Australia always seemed to read his intentions to perfection.
"As soon as we scored, we opened up a lot in the middle. Maybe we got a bit defensive. We attacked more in the fourth quarter. We have to see the video and analyse it. We should have won this match," India's striker SV Sunil said.
India defensively solid
India's defence on the night was good, and the couple of times Australia were able to get into difficult positions, goalkeepers Akash Chikte and Suraj Karkera held firm, with Rupinder and Harmanpreet Singh joining Birendra Lakra and Amit Rohidas in making clean tackles. India also kept their wits about themselves even as Australia amped up the physicality in the second half, with experienced players like Rupinder and Manpreet ensuring their team-mates kept calm even when put under pressure by their opponents.
This was just the first of many tests to come over the next nine days, though, and the World League Final format makes pool matches almost irrelevant, as finishing last in the pool also sends a team into the quarter-finals. Perhaps that's why Australia gave more game time to their youngest players, and even had captain Mark Knowles playing in centre of defence. India return in less than 24 hours against England, who themselves lost 2-0 in the first game on Friday.
"We saw England (play against Germany), we played three quarters against them in practice and drew 1-1, so we have plans in place. We have to recover and go sleep and rehydrate quickly enough," SV Sunil said.