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September 18, 2000
For India, weather will decide whether...Jaideep Singh
The Indian hockey team will come face to face with its moment of reckoning on Tuesday when it faces formidable Australia in the key group match of the Olympic Games.
The India-Australia encounter is being billed as the crucial match for Terry Walsh’s boys by the Aussie hockey fraternity, which views the Indians as the tournament's 'sleepers', and the team to watch for after its 3-0 triumph over Argentina on Saturday.
Australia for its part displayed their wares with a 4-0 drubbing of Poland to make an impressive start, but only after being frustrated for 34 minutes before the first goal.
The Australia-India matchup thus assumes great signifance, and the key element there would be the late night start (8.30pm Sydney time). Which will test the ability of the Indians, epecially the ability of the players to handle the drastic change of temperature that is the norm for night games.
While Sydney stays sunny during the days, night games under lights are characterised by blustery weather.
Just what the conditions could mean in terms of performance is highlighted by the two games Pakistan has played thus far. Its opening game, against Canada, saw the former champions trail at one point, before fighting their way to a 2-2 draw. On Monday, however, Pakistan smashed Britain 8-1.
The first game was played at night, in sub-16 degree temperatures, while today's game was played in the afternoon, in a sizzling 32 degrees.
While this may not be the only explanation for the mixed results by Pakistan, there is no denying that the weather is a definite factor. Pakistan in fact started very sluggishly in the game against Canada, and took quite a while to warm up.
Seen from that light, India has two games where the weather could be a prime factor -- the late night encounter with Australia on Tuesday, and the early morning (8 am) start against South Korea in the next game.
The Australians on the other hand will thrive in the conditions. "This is the weather in which we play our hockey," said Australian Hockey Federation official Ivan Spedding.
"The whole world thinks we play our hockey in summers, but actually that is not quite true," Spedding told rediff.com.
The floodlit State Hockey Centre has brought to fore this new challenge faced by Asian teams, India, Pakistan and Malaysia -- in negotiating the hurdles for an Olympic medal.
Australia, often dubbed 'chokers’ for their inexplicable tendency to convert their potential into medals of the gold and silver variety, are determined to prove a point in their 'home' Olympics. Being conditioned for such weather is but a small part of their preparation.
The Aussies have made pride, persistence and precision their catchwords. Against Poland, they showed no signs of being nervous at not getting goals against what was expected to be easy opposition.
"We were frustrated, but were able to persist," said coach and former Australian captain Walsh, who was a member of Ric Charlesworth’s 1986 World Cup winning side. "Nerves were a factor in the first half and I’m far from satisfied by the overall display."
The fact that the Aussies were unfazed at their inability to break through early is interesting, for patience has never really been their strong point. The side, though, is looking to change all that during these Games, and their reputation now is that of a side that will not panic.
Intriguingly, both teams have proved to be slow starters, in their first outings -- India against Argentina, and Australia against Poland, both took their time to settle down and find some kind of rhythm. The initial course of the game could, thus, boil down to a question of which of the two gets off the blocks faster. Indian coach V Bhaskaran will be hoping that his side gets off to a quick start, which will avert panic within the ranks -- for when it comes to panicking, India can beat Australia hands down in any field.
Against India tomorrow, Australia start with the advantage of better conditioning and acclimatisation to the adverse weather conditions. The Indians, for their part, have had a good three-week build up with a conditioning camp in Australia -- but in the final analysis, three weeks cannot make up for a lifetime.
Though various factors seem weighted against the Indians, the side is being eyed quite warily by the pundits. Former Australian coach Richard Aggiss, however, feels the charismatic Indians are likely to pose a lot of problems in these Games.
"They are the sleepers one ought to be wary of," says Aggiss. And Australia seems to be heeding those words of caution.
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