The 22nd edition of the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup sees six teams participating in the tournament that gets underway on Saturday.
We take a look at all the teams and evaluate their chances in the world's longest running invitational tournament.
Traditionally a strong hockey nation, India leaves no stones unturned to regain its past glory. Driven emotionally, Indian adminos rightfully and thankfully consider regular participation in the Azlan Shah Cup is a step to accomplish this revival task. With thinking on right way, Indian teams were able to carve a niche for themselves in the world’s oldest invitation tournament that Azlan Shah Cup is. True India finished last at the last Olympics, first ever such ignominy in their chequered history, yet the fact remains, and reminds, that they missed the previous number and are in the Olympic company now; having re-entered it with an all win record in the last year Olympic Qualifier. Having finished fourth in the Melbourne Champions Trophy last year end, and then second in Doha at the second Asian Champions Trophy, India did well to enter the Hockey World League third round to be held in Amsterdam / Kuala Lumpur. Indian team led by Sardar Singh, coached by the Australian import Michael Nobbs accomplished this mission recently in New Delhi. They won all the five matches with thumbing scorelines in the Round 2. They would in all likelihood live upto the newly acquired image of winners rathern than rumbling about the London Olympic nighmare. Vibrant India had played so many events that it is a gainsay that noway they will be weighed down by the recent past mishaps on the turf.Indian hockey players are adored and adulated for their skill and speed, and their ability to surprise their rivals. This year is not going to be different, as it has stars, who gained enormous exposure in the recently held Hockey India League, are expected excel in the 22nd edition of the Azlan Shah Cup. Led by young dasher Danish Mujtaba, with as experienced goalie as Sreejesh as his deputy, India lacks nothing to leave their imprint in the forthcoming Ipoh carnival.
Pakistan, a traditional outfit known for enigmatic energy and boundless enterprise, are the undisputed leaders of Asian hockey, a status they regained with grit and determination in a brief spell of three years. Pundits did not assign any bright future for Pakistan hockey when they finished last in the last World Cup (2010). But the wounded lions as they are, patronized on a grand scale by their government, propelled by former players of repute at the helm of administrative set up, belied no-hopers’ predictions to rise like phoenix from the ashes. The team braved public outcry, bulldozed pessimists to pave a new path, a path of progress and fecundity. They won the matches when it almost looked impossible, scored quick-silver goals to come out of the time warped chrysalis. Today, Pakistan are the undisputed leaders of Asian Hockey a position the likes of South Korea denied them for the last two decades. Pakistan is the only Asian team to win a medal (bronze) at the latest Champions Trophy. It enhanced its reputation again a month later, when they overcame stiff challenge posed by their arch rival India in the finals of the Champions Trophy. At Doha in the Asian Hockey Federation’s proud new genre of competition, Pakistan defeated fighting India in a tense final.
Pakistan Hockey Federation, alive to the expectations of back home, have announced a strong team for the present Azlan number. The team led by Md. Imran has in Akhtar Rasool, captain of the gold winning World Cup team, as its chief coach while midfield marvel Hanif Khan will be the coach. Pakistan had to rest fever-struck Waseem Ahmad and injured Shakeel Abbasi, but coaches are confident they have found matching equivalents to fill the vacuum. Its long time since Pakistan left its indelible mark on the Azlan Shah Cup, with Asia Cup which eludes them now, and Hockey World League Semifinals to be held in Malaysia, Pakistan will look forward to refurbish its image in Ipoh.
New Zealand surprised every participating nation last year in the Azlan Shah Cup with a rare display that gave them the crown. A long goal against Argentina in the final got them the coveted title. Chronicler won’t hesitate to describe such is typical of New Zealand. They get at the rivals, catch them unawares and offer no elbow to recover and recuperate. Any peep into their hockey history would vouch safe exactly that. New Zealand was never billed in the top when 12 teams lined up for top honours in the 1976 Olympics, where synthetic turf was introduced. Despite drawing first two matches, it won the last two matches which counted: Semifinal and final against The Netherlands (2-1) and Australia (1-0), respectively. That one goal of Tony Ineson may be bigger in proportion and heavier in merriment, compared to Andy Haywards’, whose lone strike ensured first ever Azlan Shah Cup for them last year, but times have changed. New Zealand does not live on past; its one nation that strives hard to improvise things, and is getting reward on both men and women fronts. However, Australian import Colin Batch, chief coach of The Kiwis, chose to bring a youthful outfit for this year. He perhaps had no choice as some key players had to be in Europe to fulfill their commitments. New Zealand team is led by experienced Dean Couzins. He has able support in gem of players in Andy Hayward, Stephen Jenness, Arun Panchia, Hugo Iglis and the likes. Most of the Kiwi players turned out to be stars in India last month when they figured for the successful Ranchi Rhinos (gold) and Delhi Waverirders (silver) in the Hockey India League. There is hope they will be so in Ipoh too.
Koreans are self believers. They believe in whatever they do. This attitude helped them achieve lofty heights in the comity of hockey nations. In the 80s, when India and Pakistan rode like a colossus, unchallenged and unquenched, Koreans believed in the unbelievable. They felt they can upset the applecart of both. They did it too. They stopped these two giants on their track, and with that the golden journey of Koreans commenced. With the first Asian Games gold at Seoul in 1986, and many more to follow as a routine, and then Silver in the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Koreans proved how self-belief can create havoc in the established blocks. Having won all the title in the continents, Korean had their whale of fame all through last three decades. Currently of course Korean face enormous, insurmountable- looking challenge to their painstakingly built prestige. Emerging Malaysia and India, together with entrenched Pakistan, pose challenge to their established suzerneity. With a result, Korea struggle to keep its flag at the top. Korea gave a bye to recent Asian Champions Trophy after missing out the final in the previous edition, lost the Asian Games crown at Doha. Koreans absence here and there, and their downward trend is felt strongly by connoisseurs of the game. It has robbed some sheen from the otherwise well-competed events. Korean are now back in the business with their entry in Ipoh. They have only Asia Cup title in their kitty, would like to climb back to top position in the continent through a good performance, which they are always capable of, in the 22nd edition. The joint-winners of 2010 in the rain washed final, did not do well in the next two. Their intention to reverse the form will add colour to the competitive environ of the Azlan Shah Cup.
Two years ago, penalty corner expert Christopher Ciriello posted the golden goal for Australia to annex its sixth Azlan Shah Cup title, their sixth and maximum by any country in the world’s oldest invitational tournament. Australia thus have reputation to live upto when they take on India on the Ipoh turf on the opening day of the 22nd edition. Rob Hammond, the 26-year old, will spearhead Australian challenge against the backdrop of mostly inexperienced squad that chief coach Ric Charlesworth chose to field. The coach in particular will be under scanner. Perhaps for the first time in the illustrious career of the multi-faceted Ric, a question mark raises in the mind of the hockey aficionados. For, his team, Mumbai Magicians in the recent Hockey India League, with as many as seven Australians in the line up, did not live upto the expectations. Braving apart, Ric chose to give exposure to youngsters in the Azlan Shah Cup. He has thus double task of maintaining his personal reputation as coach and also to ensure decent success for the young team he chose. This situation by default adds suspense to the Azlan Shah Cup. The veteran has passed many tests in the past, and it is hoped this time it won’t be an exception. If Australia wins this summer, it will be their seventh Azlan Shah title, a record in the offing which the Kangaroos hope will lap it up.