The last time India and England faced off was in a pool match at the 2022 Commonwealth Games, a game that had more lessons for both sides than the 4-4 scoreline would suggest.
After contrasting wins in their respective opening World Cup games here, their face-off on Sunday would not just be a virtual fight for the top spot in Group D but also a chance to prove they had definitively moved on from the errors of their previous meeting.
At Birmingham in July last year, the Indians stamped their dominance to take a 3-0 lead, playing near-perfect hockey – before losing their collective form and minds to pick up a series of cards, playing with a man down for almost the entire second half and conceding goals on a platter. And with England declaring its intention to play its own version of ‘Bazball”, or attacking, a free-flowing, risk-taking brand of hockey, it won’t be easy for the host to come out on top.
It won’t be impossible either- Against Spain, India’s attack was sharp and targeted. The midfield of Manpreet Singh, Hardik Singh, and Akashdeep Singh was relentless in finding the gaps. The defence, of course, was the star, with players literally putting their bodies on the line and Krishan Pathak pulling off a series of brilliant saves to stake his credentials as Sreejesh’s successor.
But most importantly, India proved it had learnt its lessons and could hold and adjust its structure to shifting opposition plans in its 2-0 win against Spain without losing discipline even though Abhishek’s suspension in the crucial fourth quarter would have definitely been spoken about in the team meeting, as would have the missed penalty corners.
England’s 5-0 win against Wales might sound more impressive but the difference in opposition needs to be taken into account, as also the fact of the latter playing its first-ever World Cup. The aggressive game played by England would test India’s defence a lot more but also hopefully allow the Indians to run more freely. England’s shaky start in CWG was capitalised on by India then and taking an early lead would be a big advantage this time as well.
On the flip side, England fared worse with its penalty corners — earning 12 but fumbling 10, its main drag-flicker and top-scorer in the last one year Nicholas Bandurak failing to fire. With little to separate the two sides on field, the crowd would be the extra edge for India and if the opening game was any indicator, Sunday’s game is set to be a cracker.