Hockey: India can learn from Australia's exploitation of space ahead of World Cup

India lost their test series against Australia 1-4 ahead of the FIH World Cup in January 2023. Mark Brake/Getty Images for Hockey Australia

The Indian men's hockey team concluded their tour to Australia on Sunday, which saw them play five high-quality matches against arguably the best team in the world. Graham Reid's side lost the series 4-1, but the tour was not really about results; with both teams using the opportunity to prepare for the upcoming World Cup in India, starting from January 13.

Five matches produced plenty of goals - 42 to be exact - with Australia scoring 25 to India's 17. Tactically and technically, Australia were superior, but India were competitive in all five matches and even defeated them for the first time since 2016 in the third match of the series.

After the first two games, it was evident that India's midfield and defence were no match for Australia but they made progress in the next three encounters, despite what the final result said. One-on-one defending improved and India's midfield created goal-scoring chances. Hardik Singh's terrific pass for India's match-winning goal in the third game is one shining example.

There's no doubt that Reid's side would've learned many crucial lessons from the tour. However, one major point which connects both defensive and offensive aspects and from which India could learn their biggest lesson is how to create and utilize space, especially inside the circle.

Australia's brilliance in exploiting spaces

The total number of field goals scored by Australia in five matches was 13, compared to India's eight. This number of goals from penalty corners/variations and strokes for Australia was 12, while the corresponding number for India was nine.

It exhibits how Australia are not heavily dependent on penalty corners to score, despite the presence of two equally good specialists in Blake Govers and Jeremy Howard.

The key to scoring a high number of field goals is how players create space for themselves inside the circle, coupled with exceptional ball striking abilities. If there's scope to take an extra inch, Australia will make use of it to their advantage.

Consider the first goal in the final match of the series, when Tom Wickham moves forward towards the ball, to ensure he gets the space he needs to turn and unleash a powerful hit.

Or take Australia's second goal of the fourth match. Jake Whetton views the empty space near the goal post and occupies the position. Jack Welch passes the ball after beating Indian defenders through his 3D skills and Whetton is there to score a simple trap and tap in.

Another example is Welch's goal in the second match. The circle is crowded, Jake Harvie receives the ball with his back to the goal, turns and goes to his left where there's space and pings the pass to Welch - who makes no mistake from close range. Or the very first goal of the first match, when Lachlan Sharp runs behind Indian defenders to receive the ball in space and comes up with a superb finish.

Defending in modern hockey is a tough, tough job. But defending against Australia becomes even more of a task because of their ability to find space. An opponent's pressing doesn't usually work against Australia, because they move the ball quickly and they know exactly where to pass.

This is a huge lesson for India and other teams aspiring to break into the top. Attacking wise, the Indian players would've have seen what Australia do best, but they would've also taken notes with regard to defence and how to stop them.

No doubt, India are aiming for the ultimate glory in the World Cup and their journey will see them facing challenges from top teams like Australia. It's not enough to beat them by playing your natural game, you have to plot their downfall by limiting their strengths. Can India do it on a consistent basis in the World Cup? We'll find out in January.