Hockey World Cup: India count on counters, New Zealand on countering counters in quarterfinal playoff

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A tackle near the half line to steal the ball. A breezy run down the flank, into the circle. A deafening din. An attempted pass. And a goal. “That,” New Zealand captain Nic Woods says, “is India in a nutshell.”

Hardik Singh – the orchestrator of that action sequence against Spain, which saw possession exchanging sticks and turning into a goal in just eight seconds – was ruled out of the World Cup on the eve of India’s playoff match for the quarterfinals against New Zealand. But replace Hardik with Nilakanta Sharma or Manpreet Singh or Vivek Sagar Prasad, and the outcome would have probably been the same.

To paraphrase a trending meme, if you had to pick one thing that screams Indian hockey without actually saying Indian hockey, it is this – the quick turnover and the speedy counterattacks. It’s what spelt doom for Spain in the opener, put the ‘Bazball-ing’ England under the cosh in the goalless thriller and overwhelmed a defiant Wales in the concluding group stage match.

And it’s what New Zealand, a potential banana skin opponent in the knockout game, are expecting. “Their counterattack is amazing. When they are in flow, it’s hard to stop them, particularly when they are playing at home,” coach Greg Nicol said. Woods smiled: “It is a little bit daunting.” To an extent that New Zealand spent a major chunk of their last two training sessions fine-tuning their counter controls and one/two-vs-one situations.

Team’s identity

As penalty corners increasingly get blunted out by defences, turnovers in the opponent’s half have become the other lethal route to create goal-scoring chances, with teams pressing high, stealing possession and overloading in the attacking third. Watching India do that in front of packed stands is a thrill – and under Graham Reid, it’s fast becoming the team’s identity.

“Every moment on the pitch you should be trying to score,” Reid had told The Indian Express. “It perhaps is a hangover from my days (as the coach) at Australia and with Ric (Charlesworth, as an assistant coach). It makes for good watching. It’s how I love to play and my teams to play.”

New Zealand have read India’s playbook. And to counter it, they are likely to stack people in their half, block direct passing channels towards their goal, stop India from coming close to the 6m mark inside the circle and keep the scoreline as close as possible until the fourth quarter. For all the progress they’ve made, India have found the going tough against teams that adopt this style, including the Black Sticks who played two close games against India in the Pro League at the Kalinga Stadium last year.

“In the first game, we really put India under severe pressure. Went up and forced them to change what they were actually doing,” Nicol said. “So we got a few things up our sleeves, which we will bring to the party.”

Reid will hope his forward line, at least, will join the party. After an unimpressive win against Wales, Reid was at pains to explain why his team lacked the sharpness inside the attacking third. “We got in each other’s way, crowded a bit too much,” he said. “Lots of things, to be honest. Choices, decisions…”

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Getting near the ‘6m ring’

He was unable to hide his frustration given these have been recurring issues. While India’s counterattacks are exhilarating, the profligacy inside the attacking third and the inability to get into scoring zones have repeatedly let them down. As per Reid’s calculations, around 70 to 80 per cent of the field goals are scored from the ‘5-6m ring around the goal.’ “Scoring zone is what you’re trying to get to and that’s tough, especially when everyone’s crowding that area,” he had said.

The team has spent months training in Bangalore for this. The purpose was to improve the quality of opportunities and make it a fun exercise. He started rating the chances created on a scale of one to five, with five for a shot from close range and one for either taking an unnecessary touch or shooting from the edge of the circle. “The target,” he said, “was to change 1s and 2s into 3, 4 and 5s.”

For that, the team had to learn to be patient; roll the ball from one side of the pitch to another, find a gap and then penetrate to get into the 6m ring, an imaginary line around the goal from where most field goals are scored. It could be through the aerial balls played from the midfield to the forwards who hug the byline, weaving runs from the flanks to get behind the defenders or defence-splitting through balls, hoping to get a deflection in front of the goal.

With goals from penalty corners drying up for India, the turnovers and counterattacks are what they’ll hope will get the job done in their battle to win a spot in the last eight.

And the visitors claim to have done their homework. “We really got to be smarter on the ball, don’t give them free turnover,” Nicol said, “and when they do get turnover balls, we have to be disciplined and patient in our defence.”

Quarterfinal playoffs:

January 22

5pm: Malaysia vs Spain (winner to face Australia in quarters)

7pm: India vs New Zealand (winner to face Belgium in quarters)

January 23

5pm: Argentina vs South Korea (winner to face Netherlands in quarters)

7pm: France vs Germany (winner to face England in quarters)


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