Memories, vivid, varied and vibrant, come in a cascade as we indulge in an introspection of the fascinating ebb and flow of the annual Sultan Azlan Shah tournament.
As another one set for dawn at the aesthetically designed Azlan Stadium in Ipoh, it is difficult to ward off the enveloping mood of nostalgia.
Conceived as the theatre to match the prestigious FIH Champions Trophy, this annual competition is the brain-child of that visionary, the late HRH Sultan Azlan Shah, the patriarch of hockey in Perak, nay, Malaysia, and Asia.
Launched in 1983 amidst the speculation over its longevity, this invitational event today remains the only competition designed to enlarge and enhance the profile of Asian countries.
The importance of this being the training ground was not lost on top notch nations either. Almost every Super Power in the game has figured in the list for nearly two decades. In a nutshell, its status as a world renowned event is now sure and secure.
Traversing down the lane of memory it is not easy to assess the gain or otherwise of the Asian outfits. True, the event more than compensated for the dearth of competitions in the region. But there is a depressing feeling that Asian countries that once dominated the sport are now in a down syndrome.
There are 6 nations battling it out in the 28th edition which commenced on Saturday, March 23.
The week long tournament will see the likes of former champions India, Korea battling it out with reigning Asian Games gold medalist Japan, Canada, Poland and hosts Malaysia
Two teams have made their intentions clear, both Malaysia and India want to win the title.
Japan are however taking the tournament as a long term preparation for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
“ We have a year long plan geared towards the Olympics and playing here in Ipoh will give us the much needed matches,” contends coach Seigfried Aikman.
“ Teams like Canada, Malaysia are in the final stages of preparation for the Olympic Qualifiers and should dominate.
“ Of course we have India who are a class above and are the favourites.”
India, after a disappointing World Cup on home ground last December, will be looking at bouncing back with a title.
Represented by a mixed team, India are looking to add to the five titles they have won in the history of the Azlan Shah Cup.
India were shut out of the Asian Games Final after losing a shoot out to Malaysia in the semis.
Though they won the Asian Champions Trophy at the Maulana Bhasani Stadium in Muscat last October, starting 2019 will help boost their chances of getting their task of making the Olympics on a firm footing.
“ We need to be focussed and not take any team lightly,” said Indian skipper Manpreet Singh.
“ The first target is to negotiate the pool matches and make the final.
“ We have a good blend of youth and experience and this will serve us well in a tournament where we playa total of 6 matches over a 9 day period.
“ Hence fitness and consistency will be the key factors.”
As for Korea, they have steadily skipped in World Rankings over the past few years.
Once amongst the top 10 ranked teams in the world, Korea are now languishing in the 17th spot.
But they have brought an experienced side to Ipoh.
Going by the matches they played, a 6-0 win over Malaysia and 4-1 win over Japan , this will give other teams a cause for concern.
In Jang Jong Hyun they have a penalty corner specialist and he will be the one to watch.
Canada and Poland could well face issues with the weather as the humidity in Ipoh , as in the rest of the country, has been extreme.
For hosts Malaysia, this will be the best opportunity to lift the title that had evaded then since the inaugural tournament held in 1983.
Coach Roelant Oltmans has had six months with the local Hockey scene and has handpicked in his words the best players to achieve his target of landing the title.
Ipoh will bear witness to an exciting week of Hockey.
And that will set the tone for the months to come as teams gear up towards qualification to Tokyo 2020.