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India men's hockey at Tokyo Olympics: Will Australia be a challenge for Manpreet Singh's men?

Team Australia
Team Australia
FEATURED COLUMNIST

There seems to be little to choose from between the two groups in the men's field hockey competition at the upcoming Tokyo Olympics.

Japan is the lowest-ranked hockey team in the competition, placed alongside India in Group A. However, they will not just be making up the numbers as hosts in Tokyo. Not after having announced their arrival on the big stage by winning the 2018 Asian Games.

Group A also comprises of defending champions Argentina, New Zealand, Spain, and the always formidable Australia. The men from Down Under are one of the greatest sides in world hockey to have just one Olympic title to their name.

Pundits have often debated as to why a team that's dominated world hockey over the last four decades has had to settle for a lone Olympic gold medal. That “hoodoo” was finally broken at the Athens Olympics in 2004

The greatest hockey side of the modern era

No hockey team in recent times has been as menacing, as consistent, or as successful as the Australian men have. The lopsided numbers reveal the extent of their ruthless domination for the better part of the last four decades.

The Aussies have won the elite Champions Trophy a record 15 times, the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup a record 10 times, Commonwealth Games six times in succession (1998, 2002, 2006, 2010, 2014, 2018), and the World Cup thrice (11 podium finishes).

The Kookaburras have long hovered agonizingly close to the absolute summit in the Olympic Games as well, with nine medals. They managed to score six successive podium finishes from 1992 to 2012, including a narrow loss to Germany by a 1-2 margin in the Barcelona 1992 finals.

The lone Olympic gold medal, however, defies logic. It's not reflective of the superiority of a hockey team that, until recently, nailed most rivals in one-sided contests by huge margins.

Yet, as we delve into history in an attempt to trace the roots of the game Down Under, we are led all the way back to the home of hockey – India.

How players of Indian origin created a new hockey superpower

Undivided India’s dream run of a staggering six consecutive gold medals in hockey began with a title in Amsterdam 1928 and continued post-partition until the Melbourne Games in 1956.

Post-independence, a large chunk of Anglo-Indian hockey players who formed the core of the gold-medal winning Indian side migrated to Australia. They continued playing the sport they loved, but for a new nation.

Thus began the rise of a new hockey superpower with a team in the 1980s that stunned most others into submission long before the half-time hooter.

Legendary names like Ric Charlesworth, Terry Walsh and Colin Batch made for a lethal combination that made short work of the opposition. They contributed towards three successive Champions Trophy wins in 1983, 1984, and 1985 to signal the arrival of one of the greatest teams in the history of the game.

The gap is now closing as the Belgians threaten to end Australia’s unchallenged reign as the most consistent hockey side in recent history. Yet few can dispute the fact that the Aussies have begun every tournament as one of the favorites.

The kookaburras Olympic squad
The kookaburras Olympic squad

There's an aura of invincibility about Colin Batch’s boys, with the combined talents of Trent Mitton, Jake Whetton and Blake Govers wreaking havoc in opposition circles.

Backed up by the experience and solidity of Eddie Ockenden and Aran Zalewski and bolstered by the likes of Timothy Brand, who came to the fore in Breda 2018, the hockey players from Down Under are now placed on top of the heap of the latest FIH World Rankings.

Over the years, the Aussies have adopted a game of speed and skill to get numbers into the attack. To this end, they've employed the "pyramid" style, or a 5-3-2-1 style with five forwards, three midfielders, two defenders and a goalkeeper.

Invincible no more, formidable all the same

While that has now changed, the four strikers up front more than make up for the absence of a fifth. The Aussies continue to be as attacking as ever, sinking the opposition in big finals. That's what they did to the Dutch in the summit clash of the 2014 World Cup, by virtue of a 6-1 margin.

The Indians too have often been on the receiving end of many ignominious goal-fests against the Kookaburras. The Commonwealth Games finals of 2010 and 2014, with scorelines that read 0-8 and 0-4 respectively, readily come to mind.

A classic India-Australia clash is on the cards in Tokyo
A classic India-Australia clash is on the cards in Tokyo

Thankfully, the one-sided contests are now consigned to history and Indian hockey players have troubled the Aussies consistently ever since the Champions Trophy final of 2016 at London. The Australians eventually won in a controversial shootout and were completely outplayed in the summit clash of the last edition of the prestigious tournament at Breda in 2018.

Colin Batch’s boys eventually prevailed in the Breda shootout and the Indians, despite their bravado, had to settle for silver.

An encouraging showing in the 2020 Hockey Pro League against the Kookaburras included a shootout win and a narrow loss. That would have given the Indians some confidence for when they take on the Australians on July 25 - a day after playing their opener against the Kiwis.

The Aussies have had a decent outing thus far in an unfinished Pro League campaign, winning five of their 10 matches. Two of those triumphs were against neighbor New Zealand last month, after a long COVID-19-induced gap where the team played no international games for over a year.

The sole loss to Belgium was a low point for Australia during their HPL 2020 campaign. The defending champions walloped Great Britain and Argentina in their second-leg fixtures after registering draws against both teams in the first-leg matches.

Corey Weyer, Jake Harvie, Matthew Swann and Dylan Wotherspoon found a place in the team for the 2018 World Cup. However, they've failed to make the cut for the squad of 16 announced by Hockey Australia.

Following a rules amendment which allowed for 18 players, Tom Wickham and Josh Beltz will bolster Colin Batch’s side while Tyler Lovell will travel to Tokyo as the reserve goalkeeper.

Eddie Ockenden will be playing in his fourth Olympics while young Dylan Martin, who made his international debut a couple of months back, is a surprise inclusion.

Given the side's hunger to add a second gold to their tally, the Australians will be a formidable force to be reckoned with in Tokyo. Their Group A match against India next week promises to be nothing short of a spectacular humdinger.


The Australian hockey team for Tokyo 2020:

Goalkeeper: Andrew Charter

Daniel Beale, Timothy Brand, Tom Craig, Matthew Dawson, Blake Govers, Jeremy Hayward, Tim Howard, Dylan Martin, Trent Mitton, Eddie Ockenden, Flynn Ogilvie, Lachlan Sharp, Josh Simmonds, Jake Whetton, Aran Zalewski

Reserves: Tom Wickham, Josh Beltz, Tyler Lovell


FIH Rankings:

Australia – 1

India - 4

Overall Head to Head:

Matches: 128

Australia: 85

India: 22

Drawn: 21

Olympic Head to Head:

Matches: 10

Australia: 5

India: 3

Drawn: 2

You might also like: Tokyo Olympic Hockey Schedule


Edited by Sandeep Banerjee

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