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FLYING START 

India were singed by the fiery, orange-clad, Malaysians on Jakarta’s blue turf three months ago. The shock on the players’ faces — after another notorious meltdown — made one imagine that they would have loved for the turf to swallow them. It didn’t, and the backlash they faced sent the team into a shell. They camped in Odisha, quietly hiding from everyone’s eyes.

On Wednesday, a very changed India emerged out of the bright, oceanic blue in Bhubaneswar. An unrecognisable India, yet slightly reminiscent of them from over a year ago, stepped out of their shell, into a cauldron. They had many reasons to trip and burn again — on one of the biggest stages in hockey, 15,000 eyes followed their every move.

But a new-look India, with 10 players making their World Cup debut, produced a measured and versatile performance to take apart minnows South Africa 5-0 in their opener.

Cautious and controlled

Playing against a world No. 15 team, which is 10 rungs below them, India didn’t go all out, didn’t try to blow away their opponent right from the start. They settled their nerves by taking control of possession, tried to hit South Africa on the counter with snappy, intuitive, interceptions from the forwards and midfielders. They linked moves with one-touch passes, or without even touching the ball in one case, displaying their understanding. And they defended as a team, whether they pressed high or controlled their half.

But, most importantly, they got that all-important first goal in this World Cup early into the match; and they “took their chances” to rack up the numbers in their goals-for column, which might come in handy if the fight to top the pool comes down to goal difference.

Not getting carried away

However, it was not a flawless performance, and neither were India facing the toughest of rivals. It would be hard to judge India from this win. In the first half, South Africa’s defence, especially their frontline and midfield, was missing from action. India’s central midfielders and inside-forwards got too much space to receive the ball around the opposition’s 25-yard line and to move around and find another free pass. But after the half-time break, South Africa tightened their structure after making a “few changes”. India found the going get much tougher.

They got carried away, attacked with more numbers, only to be hit on the counters a couple of time. Despite being 2-0 up, they took unnecessary risks and gave South Africa a few big chances; they were let-off, though, as South Africa missed, which coach Mark Hopkins felt “was the difference between the two teams.”

Tougher opponents await India next. They face world No. 3 Belgium next, before taking on world No.  11 Canada in their final pool game. Belgium beat Canada 2-1 earlier, though the scoreline doesn’t fully show the Europeans’ dominance in the match. The Canadians, however, showed they would not be pushovers.

Versatile approach

It would be harsh to criticise India too much after such a morale-boosting and crowd-pleasing victory. India did more things right than they did wrong. There weren’t too many missed passes or missed traps or pointless, showboating, runs. They held their structure for long periods. They showed good understanding – Hardik Singh’s dummy at the centre to let a pass roll past him to Akashdeep Singh near South Africa’s 25-yard line was a perfect example.

And, refreshingly, they showed the versatility in their game that had been missing for more than a year. They enjoyed long spells of possession, a style of play they had seemingly abandoned in Sjoerd Marijne’s tenure and most of Harendra Singh’s short term as head coach. Roelant Oltmans had gotten India to dominate possession, even against top teams, till he was sacked over a year ago. But his side had lacked the sting that the current team shows. Some credit goes to Marijne for training India to play fast, one-touch hockey; however, it had become a one-dimensional counter-attacking style. On Wednesday, it was refreshing to see India adapt and change according to the situation, and reassuring to know that they didn’t even hit their full stride.

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