Marshalling a young bunch which he describes as “very inexperienced”, he continues to be the Australian team’s key player and not just because of the wealth of experience he brings to the table and the fact that he happens to be their captain too.
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Pleased as his team won the title after starting on an average note when they were left dazzled by India in their opening clash of the HWL 2017, Knowles is impressed at the progress his team has made after the debacle of the Rio Olympics where they lost to New Zealand in the quarter-finals.
Australia ended the pool stage winless, drawing all their three games against India (1-1), Germany (2-2) and England (2-2). After an average start considering the standards expected from the current world champions, it was natural to have doubts as to whether Australia will be able to defend their crown.
“We started off a little bit below our best,” he told TOI Sports on Sunday, “but the biggest thing with these tournaments is that you don’t want to play your best game at the start. We knew the pool stage you only have to win a certain amount and you have to play your best in the quarter-finals, semis and the final to win the trophy.”
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But, as was their plan, Australia kept their best for the stage which mattered. In the knockouts, they raised their game and spanked Spain 4-1 in the quarter-finals, beat a depleted Germany 3-0 in the semis and then outwitted Olympic champion Argentina in the summit clash 2-1 en route to a second HWL title.
Knowles feels the tournament will serve Australia’s young players well as they would have learned how to deal with pressure situations in pressure matches in a packed stadium. “We didn’t do well in Rio last year. But this team is growing, it’s new, different and getting better. I think it’s fantastic for a group of very inexperienced player who haven’t known exactly where we were in this year. To come out and play in three big matches and win three finals, for us that’s the perfect way to end the year,” he said.
Knowles still feels that the team has some way to go before establishing themselves as the world’s best as little separates the top-ten teams. “What we have seen is that the top-eight teams in the world are so close. You look at Nos 7 and 8 in this tournament – they are one of the best in the world. If you don’t play well in big matches, you will pay for it,” he said. “If you look at maybe the best team in this year Belgium, they got beaten by India. So you have to be good at every single game and that’s probably this team did really well. We didn’t think much about past matches or the matches to come. As I said, for a group of young guys, who haven’t played much international hockey that’s very-very pleasing.”
Australia coach Colin Batch has been tasked to guide them through this transition phase, and has had a good year. This is his second title in two months with the Kookaburras after winning the 2017 Oceania Cup in October. A busy year lies ahead for international field hockey and the 59-year-old, who took over the team’s rein in December 2016, feels it is moving in the right direction.
“We introduced a few younger players [in the tournament]. Two of them played in the junior world cup last year. There was another 19-year-old. It has been a very good experience for them,” he said. “They have just started their Kookaburras career and it’s nice to start with a tournament win. It is the end of our year and we are happy with this. We have a break after this and we move forward to developing [them] firstly for the Commonwealth Games and then the World Cup at the end of the year.”
While he is content with how the team performed as a unit, his captain impressed him the most. “Our captain Mark Knowles is still a very good player and he played all the way through and he has very high standards we have come to expect that he can do that. But we had consistent performances across the team and I am pleased that we’ve become a good team which is hard to beat,” he said.
Batch echoed Knowles’ view that there is still a lot of scope of improvement and the team wants to graduate from being just good to very good. “Look there’s a lot to improve still. We want to become a very good side and at the moment we are just good. But at the moment we will just enjoy the victory and we are very pleased,” he said.
Source : timesofindia