With an eye on the title, a resurgent India would be eyeing to start their Azlan Shah Cup campaign on a winning note when they take on debutant Egypt in the opening match of the five-nation hockey tournament on Sunday.
India, on a redemption journey after last year’s Olympic debacle, is presently on a high after a recent run of success at home and Down Under, including the runners-up finish at the Punjab Gold Cup in Chandigarh, but coach-in-charge Harendra Singh is in no mood to take Egypt lightly as he wants to use the platform as a build up to the Asia Cup.
“For the Asian teams the priority is the Asia Cup in May. This is just a testing ground. The teams playing in the Azlan Shah will be eyeing to to develop a strategy for the Asia Cup,” Harendra said.
Three-time champions India won the title in 1985, 1991 and 1995 before losing out to Argentina last year by the golden goal.
Harendra was upbeat after India defeated the title favourites and highest-ranked team in the tournament New Zealand 2-1 in a practice game yesterday, saying he expected his boys to get into their stride and strike the right rhythm from the beginning.
“My boys have been in action since touring Argentina in January. We have also had the opportunity to play in Australia and New Zealand and the Punjab Gold Cup in Chandigarh against defending World and Olympic champions Germany and European powerhouse Holland in February,” he said, adding that the Indians needed to be more consistent.
Captain and drag-flicker Sandeep Singh will be expected to lead from the front alongside veteran Dilip Tirkey, who with 403 international caps, will be the key man in the defence. Young midfielder Ajitesh Roy is likely to be pressed as the third full back due to VR Raghunath’s last minute withdrawl from the squad owing to a shoulder injury.
Indian midfield, with attacking Gurbaj Singh, Sardara Singh, Tirkey brothers – Ignace and Prabodh – and Arjun Halappa, looks compact.
The tournament will also provide Harendra the opportunity to test his bench strength which has received a boost with the return of winger Prabhjot Singh after his marriage. Even though Rajpal Singh has pulled out of the event due to exams, the coach has enough options in Tushar Khandker, Shivendra Singh, SV Sunil, Bharat Chikhara and Gurvinder Chandi.
Interestingly, although Harendra feels that the absence of a strong field will hamper the quality of the event, he said the lone 2010 World Cup berth up for grabs will act a motivating factor for the teams.
“I do not think we should expect any great performances. The absence of the top teams will surely affect the quality of the meet. But it still has its uses and we hope to do well,” Harendra said.
“Since many good teams like New Zealand will be there so team would be motivated to play well. The one who wins Asia Cup would directly qualify for the World Cup. But since we are the host of World Cup, we are directly qualified for it, but if we win Asia Cup, then we would be able to improve our ranking,” Harendra said.
Apart from India, world number seven and 1976 Montreal Olympics champions New Zealand, hosts Malaysia, arch-rivals Pakistan and Egypt are the other countries who will be vying for top honours in the eight-day meet, which has suffered from the absence of top hockey-playing nations like Germany, Australia and Holland.
However, if statistics are to be believed the Sandeep Singh-led Indian side will have to guard against complacency and their habit of faltering at the final hurdle as the Black Sticks, the highest-ranked side in the tournament, and Pakistan pose a serious threat to their title hopes.
Although India played well in the last one year, they have faltered at the last hurdle on at least two occasions — against Argentina in the Azlan Shah itself last year and in the Punjab Gold Cup hockey earlier this year.
Inspite of the drawbacks, Harendra is confident of at least making it to the finals.
“The boys have shown considerable improvement in he last one year and I am confident of at least qualifying for the final. Which of course, will be a totally different ball-game,” he said.
Skipper Sandeep also echoed his coach’s feelings and said the team is confident of turning the table this time around.
“The team has worked hard and our strategy would be to play well, reach the final and win it,” Sandeep said.