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High-press India vs. rebounding Australia in battle of coaches

Indian captain Manpreet Singh in action against Belgium during the FIH Pro League in Bhubaneswar. Hockey India

Graham Reid still carries lines in his head from his days of coaching the Australian national team. "You know, we used to say then that always beware of the third Australian team," the 55 year-old Australian coach of the Indian men's team reminds himself ahead of their two-match encounter against heavyweights and world No. 2 Australia.

There's a reason he's throwing himself this reminder of a possible rebound. Technically, Australia will be facing India as their third opponents in the Pro League on Friday and Saturday, having got off to a wobbly start against world champions Belgium, before playing Great Britain across two legs each. Australia have had a sedate start to their Pro League campaign, winning one out of four matches. Australia's currently in fifth place, while India are perched in third position with just one loss and eight points from four matches.

Two-time Olympian Reid, who took over as India's coach last April, is mindful of the unflattering stats. The last time India beat Australia at a major FIH tournament was the 2002 Champions Trophy. " The Belgians (whom India upset 2-1 in the first leg and lost to in the second) take on more zonal (marking), while Australia play more men on men when they press," he says.

"But if you look at it, during the half-court press, Australia too play zonal. What Australia are famed for though is a fast brand of hockey and they do it a bit differently. I'm the kind of coach who doesn't like to focus a whole lot on the opposition. We can't change another team's tactics, but what we can do, is give ourselves scenarios and prepare for any change of course midway. I'm here to make India the best tackling team in the world, the best pressing team in the world, make sure we create opportunities and have a good conversion percentage."

There are some mistakes though that Reid doesn't want his team to walk into again, like Harmanpreet Singh's schoolboy error, a pass smack in the mouth of the Indian 'D' in the previous match against Belgium which helped the latter score the winning goal. "Through the 90s, the general perception about the Indian team was that they didn't defend well enough," says Reid "I'm trying to get them to be more adventurous, take some risks upfront, obviously not the kind where they welcome the opposition into our circle."

What's worked well for India so far under Reid is the high press, attacking style he's blooded into the team. Former India captain V Baskaran calls attention to India's robust forward line. "After many years, we today have quite an impressive forward line. Australia has always been the kind of team that relishes a chance to finish every game in the first five minutes but that intent seems to be missing in this tournament. Instead, they've conceded quick goals, their deep defenders seem to be in a spot of bother and the team lacks an on-field leader who can keep the pack together.

Overall, it's almost like India are more like Australia in their attack than Australia are like themselves. What we need to be wary of are the aerial balls. We have to minimise errors there or Australia will pounce on them." For India, forward Mandeep Singh is recovering from an ankle injury that's likely to keep him out for two weeks.

India's goalkeepers PR Sreejesh and Krishan Pathak too should take home a fair measure of the credit for the team's performance in this tournament so far. Pathak has been a revelation. The 22 year-old pulled off some stunning saves in the first and third quarters in their 2-1 upset win over Belgium. The score-line could have been a lot different given Belgium had 13 shots on target. "This is what we need," says Reid, "At the Olympics, we want to be able to have the luxury of great keepers."

Reid's former teammate in the national team and current Australia coach Colin Batch has been closely watching India's matches. The challenge for Australia he says has been in dipping into competition mode at the Pro League just three weeks after they began preparations. "Belgium, our previous opponents, were a lot further into their preparation and were a lot more match hardened. India, from what I've seen in the last four matches, are very direct on the counter-attack and they're able to create opportunities, which we of course have to deny."

This weekend's matches will also be a battle between coaches. Reid, who had succeeded his mentor Ric Charlesworth to the Australia coach's job following the 2014 Commonwealth Games, exited his role after the team's dismal sixth-place finish at the Rio Olympics two years later. The job then went to Batch. "We go back a really long way," says Reid, "So yeah you could say that (battle between coaches).

Batch though prefers to play down any such allusions. He concedes that Reid has brought the Australian style of hockey of hockey to India, offering much-needed structure and discipline to the training program. "India seem like they do have a sense of belief in what they do now," says Batch, "We may have started slow but we've had two weeks since our last game, so it could be a different Australia that turns up against India."