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Cup offers young India a chance to experiment


A brief history of the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup

The Sultan Azlan Shah Cup began in 1983 as a biennial event, and has since become one of the important fixtures in global hockey. Since 2003, it has been an annual tournament, with Ipoh as venue since 2007. With hockey cycles divided into World Cups and the Olympics every two years, each tournament has always provided participants a chance to field squads that mix youth with experience in a bid to prepare for sterner tests in the coming months. 2017 will be no exception.

India are the second-most successful nation in the history of the Azlan Shah Cup, their four titles bettered only by Australia’s nine. Pakistan with three are next on the list of champions, while hosts Malaysia have perhaps been the unluckiest team in terms of silverware, having made five finals but lost in each of them.

India are going with an eye on the future

There is a freshness about the Indian team going to Ipoh, and not least because this team will have six players among the 18 who won the junior World Cup in Lucknow last December. One late change due to injury was goalkeeper Suraj Karkera making way for Akash Chikte.

Head coach Roelant Oltmans has also got some new faces in the support staff, with former internationals Arjun Halappa and Jugraj Singh coming on board as assistants. Oltmans, in his last interaction with the media ahead of leaving for Ipoh, said that he didn’t want to use the word ‘juniors’ for the likes of debutants defender Gurinder Singh, and midfielders Sumit and Manpreet.

“For us, this is all one team. All players are now seniors. They have to act like seniors. That’s the way they will work. They are here because they proved they can play some quality hockey which they showed based on the good performance they had in 2016.”

India, ranked sixth in the world, will be using the Azlan Shah Cup as an opportunity to tune up for the World League Semifinals in London this June. Unlike most teams, they can afford to experiment, as they are hosts for the World League Final this December, and the 2018 World Cup, both of which will be played in Bhubaneswar. The familiar faces will include goalkeeper PR Sreejesh, midfielder Sardar Singh, defender and penalty-corner specialist Rupinderpal Singh, and forward SV Sunil, and expect each of them to give their best in order to stay in contention for the major events in the coming year. Midfielder Manpreet Singh will be the designated captain, according to Oltmans.

Who will India be playing?

World champions Australia, at No.2, will be the highest-ranked team in the tournament, and coach Colin Batch will be welcoming back a few experienced players for the first time this year, including striker Eddie Ockenden and defender Matthew Swann, who has recovered from a broken foot that ruled him out of action after mid-2016. In a team with a few new faces, goalkeeper Andrew Charter, midfielder Mark Knowles and penalty-corner specialist Jeremy Hayward will provide depth.

Great Britain, ranked 7th, will be India’s first opponents on April 29, and coach Bobby Crutchley has named 12 new players in their 18-member squad. First choice goalkeeper George Pinner and defender Michael Hoare are getting married soon and have given this trip a skip, while the experienced Barry Middleton and Mark Gleghorne return after Hockey India League (HIL) duties for Ranchi and Delhi, respectively. Scotland’s Alan Forsyth and Dan Kyriakides of Wales will find themselves in the same side, weeks after Scotland beat Wales in the third-place playoff in World League Round 2 to book the last berth for the Semifinals in London.

New Zealand, ranked 8th, are in Malaysia with an experimental squad, with captain and defender Arun Panchia one of only six players among the 18 above the age of 24. Coach Darren Smith wants to give the maximum exposure to teenagers like Hayden Phillips and striker Sam Lane, with the latter scoring one of the goals in a 3-3 draw in the second Test of their series against hosts Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur on April 24.

Malaysia picked up an 8-2 score, their biggest win against New Zealand, in the first Test over the weekend, and will be raring to have a go at all their opponents, especially as they are grouped with England and India in the World League Semifinals. Ranked 14th, Malaysia have stuck to the tried and tested players under coach Stephen van Huizen. Nik Mohamed Aiman scored a hat-trick in the 8-2 win, while the likes of Faizal Saari, Mohamed Razie Rahim and Mohamed Najmi Jazlan all contributed goals from penalty corners, which is a particular strength of the Malaysians. If they have to win their first Azlan Shah Cup title, they must look to defend better, though.

At 16th, Japan are the lowest-ranked team in tournament, but their recent run of form will give them confidence. They are coming off victory at the World League Round 2 in Trinidad and Tobago at the start of April, that booked their place for the Semifinals. They won each of their six matches, scoring 20 goals and conceding just three. Forward Kenta Tanaka scored in every game, his nine goals including a hat-trick in a 3-0 win over Switzerland.

What should Indian fans expect?

┬áIndia should go in hoping to finish in the top two after the league stages, especially after consistent performances in Asia and the world in 2016. That would guarantee them a spot in the final on May 6, and that match could be any team’s for the taking.

Oltmans emphasised that India would look to implement everything they have worked on during recent camps, saying, “Every game is a new one and that’s how we’ll approach it. All teams, probably except Japan and Malaysia, are in a transitional phase. Those two are not because they didn’t compete in the Olympics and started their cycle with an eye on the future before itself.”

“We have started with a new group and had to make new dynamics (for them). They have to understand the game plan and know their role in each position — that’s important. In the end, there’s only one place which will be shown. It will be shown in Ipoh (Malaysia) on the pitch.

– Courtesy of ESPN

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