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With two difficult matches behind them and three points in the kitty, the Indian team enjoyed a two-day break ahead of their final Group A game against Argentina on Wednesday, in the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup hockey tournament.
Chief coach Joaquim Carvalho was pleased as he looked back on the narrow 1-0 defeat to Australia and the 5-4 victory against China over the weekend.
"I think we did fairly well in both the matches, though I would be the first to say that there is still scope for improvement. But, at least, we are on the right track," he said in Ipoh, Malaysia, on Monday.
"We had just two international matches in Kuala Lumpur before coming to Ipoh for this tournament and took on Australia in our very first outing.
"Then we had a pressure game against China and I am happy at the way our team has performed so far. Given more time and exposure, I am sure we can build a strong team," said Carvalho, who took over from Vasudevan Baskaran about a month back.
The former World Cup and Olympic half-back, known for his crunching tackles, Carvalho has imbibed coaching techniques from his "guru" Balkishen Singh.
Caught in a contemplative mood, Carvalho said, "To be honest, I was a bit concerned that our young team was taking on Australia in the first game.
"The fact that a majority of our players were inexperienced at this level did play on my mind, but I remembered Balkishen's words of 'hit hard and hit over heads' and it was the strategy we adopted against the Aussies. It paid off, though we were unlucky to lose the game we should
have won," Carvalho said.
On the up-and-down game against China who scored three of the four goals through indirect penalty-corner conversions, Carvalho said, "Our biggest problem was that Bimal Lakra suffered an injury and him being one of the penalty-corner defenders on the line, it made a lot of difference. He could barely move and once I pulled him out, we had to re-organise ourselves.
"Couple of our defenders, especially Harpal Singh, had an off-day against China and it resulted in so many penalty-corners (nine)," he recalled.
India did not have the best of preparation coming into this tournament. A 1-0 loss followed by a 1-1 draw with a young Malaysian team at the massive Bukit Jalil Stadium in Kuala Lumpur last week, led to speculation that the Indian team was not best to leave the shores.
"I know that some had written us off after the results in KL, but I put it down to inexperience of our players who were rather intimidated by the conditions. Most of them had never played in such a huge stadium and being their first senior international, they were obviously nervous.
"After all, I too went through the same phase when I first played for India, but I knew that the team had the talent and potential to do much better. It was a question of getting used the conditions and gaining confidence," Carvalho said.
Taking an overview of the Indian team, Carvalho admitted that there is urgent need for a specialist centre-half, someone who can control and direct the moves.
"After all, the Indian style of play has always revolved around the centre-half. Having said that, we have a quality centre-half in the making in Sardara Singh, who has the requisite attributes.
"He has a good vision, is strong on basics and good physique, but he needs to work on ball release that is so crucial. I think, if we groom him properly, he can blossom into a top quality centre-half," Carvalho opined.
The coach had much the same to say about full-back Ramachandra Raghunath, who is fast developing into a classy drag-flicker.
Raghunath had a baptism by fire last year when he made the big leap from juniors to the men's World Cup in Germany following injury to Sandeep Singh in a freak accident.
The transition was far too sudden and dramatic for the young defender from Bangalore, but Carvalho felt that Raghunath is on the right track.
"There are a couple of weaknesses in his game, but, otherwise, mark my words, he has the potential to emerge as a leading penalty-corner specialist in the world. Against China, I drafted him on the left side of our defence. It was a gamble, but then the boy did pretty well and
even came up with a move that led to a penalty-corner that he converted. That, for me, was a good sign of a player maturing," said Carvalho.
The other aspect that he stressed on was on-field communication among the players.
"Against China, it was missing. The players need to call out and should have the ability to read the situation in their own area. Against China, when the pressure was on in the final minutes, there was not much communication and it contributed to mistakes in our defence. This is a vital area I am working on," he said.
Looking ahead to Wednesday's game against Argentina, the coach said he expects a tough game.
"They played well to beat Australia and if we do not allow them to dominate us, then we have a game in hand. Argentina adopt the 3-3-3-1 formation where their three forwards play in a bunch and always close to the ball. So, our marking has to be tight."
India's biggest advantage is that they would be playing last and hence would know what they need to do to qualify for the semi-finals.
"Argentina's win over Australia last night, has thrown the group wide open and I suspect, it might boil down to goal-difference. But our primary objective is to win the game and then assess the situation," he said.
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