A misfiring forward line, a struggling drag-flicker and a key playmaker out with injury will be among the concerns for India when it takes the field against New Zealand for a quarterfinal spot in Bhubaneswar on Sunday. Despite these, there will be several reasons for the host to be favourite and only one to guard against – itself.
For one, there will be no permutations to worry about for the host, something that clearly bothered the Indian players against Wales even when coach Graham Reid insisted there was no pressure from him. A win is all that is needed and such clarity of purpose works for the Indian team.
Then there is the recent history between the two sides. The last time the Black Sticks beat India in a major competition was at the 2018 Commonwealth Games semifinal. The only other time India has lost to the currently 12th ranked side in the last five years in 13 times was at the Olympic test event in 2019, when Sam Lane stuck in the dying seconds. Lane is still around but the last two matches in the Pro League, both at this very venue, went comfortably India’s way.
The crowd will be cheering the home side on but the biggest hope for the team will be Harmanpreet Singh coming good with his flicks. The India captain has looked a shadow of his natural self, unable to either find the angles or the power to breach the opposition defence during penalty corners. Even though his first goal in the competition, against Wales, came without a goalkeeper, the team will be hoping it helps get rid of any mental block and will start fighting. His form has been directly proportional to India’s gradual ascent through the ranks and India needs its skipper to start firing.
An injured Hardik Singh’s official exclusion from the remaining games means Rajkumar Pal will be directly thrown in a pressure situation, although the talented youngster has proven himself more than competent. That the team management preferred to bring in a young striker as replacement instead of the more tested Jugraj Singh, who could also act as an option to Harmanpreet, shows the team’s faith in both its captain and its defence. It also speaks of the team’s clear emphasis on scoring more.
New Zealand, struggling to find its rhythm, will also be hoping to do better than it has done so far with a tighter defence and more control of the ball. India will need to guard against it coming out attacking and taking early control, allowing too much space to veteran Simon Child to create chances and conceding PCs for Kane Russell.
Also vying for a place in the last eight would be Malaysia and Spain, facing off for the first time since 2019, when Malaysia won 4-3 for its only victory against the European outfit since 1993. While Spain, despite two losses, has shown glimpses of a fighting spirit and tactical nous and will be the favourite, looking to advance and better its 13th finish in the last edition, Malaysia will hope to ride on the momentum after defeating New Zealand in a close pool match for only its third quarterfinal and improve on 2018’s 15th place.
Sunday’s crossovers: Malaysia vs Spain (4.30 pm), India vs New Zealand (7 pm).