Memories, vivid and varied, come in a cascade as we indulge in an introspection of the fascinating ebb and flow of the annual Sultan Azlan Shah tournament.

As the latest in the series prepares to unfold at the Azlan Shah Stadium in Ipoh, it is difficult to ward off the enveloping mood of nostalgia.

Conceived as a tournament to match the prestigious FIH Champions Trophy, this competition is the brainchild of that extraordinary visionary, Sultan Azlan Shah, the patriarch of Malaysian and Asian hockey.

Launched in 1983 amidst speculation over its viability, this invitational event enters its 22nd edition as vibrant as ever ­-continuing to enhance the profile of Asian teams. 

The significance of the tournament as a topnotch arena for invaluable jousting was not lost on big boys of the game. Almost all of them continue to highlight the dates on their calendar as one of the premier events in world hockey.

But while the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup has more than compensated for the dearth of competitions in the region it has also been witness to the decline of the once dominant Asian teams.  

The better structural and systematic programming of the European nations has left the Asians far behind in the race. Cynically, it can also be said that frequent changes in rules, artificial pitches and their general domination in the FIH administration have all contributed to tightening the hold of European nations on the game.

The administrators in Asia have a lot to answer for the decline. The problem areas related to coaching techniques, poor or inadequate infrastructure and lack of a professional system to scout talent at the grass-root levels have only widened the chasm.

To say that Asian hockey is at the crossroads is an understatement. It almost slipped to the verge of extinction not long ago. Former world champions Pakistan finished last at the 2010 World Cup in New Delhi and India went winless to bite the dust in the London Olympics last year. 

The same goes for South Korea, once recognised as the an emerging super power forced. They only just earned a place in the Olympics with a last second goal in the qualifier. Malaysia’s fortunes continue to ebb and flow as they seek to regain a place in the elite but the rest of the world seem to have left Asia in limbo.

Europe’s best, led by Holland, Germany, Spain and Britain rule the roost together with Australia and New Zealand.

Predictably, the churning up process continues with all the ingredients of suspense adding to the complexities. The Asian countries now see the hiring of a foreign coach as the panacea to their ills.

Even as early as 1994, Pakistan brought in Dutchman Hans Jorritsma, who piloted them to triumph in the 1994 World Cup at Sydney. But the team profited little under Holland’s  Roelant Oltmans and Michel van den Heuvel. Under former skipper Akhtar Rasool Pakistan, Pakistan scooped the bronze at Melbourne and the Asian Champions Trophy in Doha.  

India avoided taking the foreign route but finally relented when they recruited the German coach, Gerhard Rech, before the Athens Olympics in 2004. This was followed by the appointment of Jose Brasa from Spain.

Their current coach is Michael Nobbs, the 1984 Olympian from Australia. A recent addition to the squad is the high performance coach from Holland, the tested and tried Oltmans. But success has been limited to the semi-final berth obtained in the last Champions Trophy. 

The foreign coaches seem unable to change the mindset of the Asian players whose basic fundamentals are flawed.

They are also handicapped by the small pool of talent available to them.

It goes without saying that unless the Asian countries revitalise their development programmes, the chances of narrowing the gap with the European countries will be a pipe dream.

No write up of the tournament is complete without mention of the man who visualised the whole concept of creating an Asian ethos. It is true that Pakistan was at the vanguard of the movement what with Brig. M. H. Atif and Air Marshal Nur Khan holding the Asian flag at the FIH. But the benign presence of Sultan Azlan Shah in the counselling sessions contributed immensely to giving Asian hockey a sense of purpose, dynamism and direction.

Once at the helm from 1996, Sultan Azlan Shah has played a pivotal role in establishing Malaysia as the hub of Asian hockey activity. The annual tournament, which carries his name, is just one of the major events, like the World Cup, Asian Championships and Champions Trophy, Malaysia has hosted. He is also in the FIH Council, the supreme body for the sport.

Hockey continues to be an irrepressible passion for the Sultan whose understanding of the nuances of the game is incomparable.

Asian hockey is twice blessed for having Sultan Azlan Shah as its guiding light.

By: S. Thyagarajan

Hockey Correspondant

The Hindu & The Sportstar

Chairman, Media Commission, AHF