Six hockey playing nations; India, Australia, Canada, Korea, New Zealand and Malaysia will vie for the title at the prestigious Sultan Azlan Shah Cup being held at Ipoh Malaysia during April 5-12, 2015. India missed the tournament last year, when Australia outclassed Malaysia 8-3 to lift their eighth title in a master-class performance and denied the host nation despite their five visits to the final since 1983. This will be the 24th edition of Azlan Shah Hockey, which started as a biannual event but since 1994 it has been played every year. After Australia, India have been the most successful participant with 5 tournament wins. Australia are not only the defending champions, they have finished winners in the last four editions of the tournament and they begin their campaign as hot favorites.
To India’s credit, they have been playing an improved game for some time now. The 2014 Asian Games champions also put up a good show in the Champions Trophy 2014 despite finishing fourth over-all. They beat the top teams that motivated them. India also has a new chief hockey coach in celebrated Dutchman Paul van Ass and he would look forward to making a start on a winning note. But other participants of the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup cannot be discounted. Hosts Malaysia have been unlucky not to win the competition even once but they may like to change their five-time runners-up tag this time round. They are a strong team and home support can be a huge factor in their favor. Similarly, one cannot ignore New Zealand and Korea, both of whom have already won the tournament in the past. New Zealand finished on top in 2012 and Korea did it twice in 1999 and 2010. Besides Malaysia, Canada is the only other team to have never won this competition.
For the past two weeks, the Indian team had been undergoing rigorous practice sessions at the Major Dhyan Chand Hockey National Stadium in New Delhi with new coach Paul van Ass keeping a close watch. Last week, Hockey India announced a strong 18-member squad that would play at Ipoh. Midfielder Sardar Singh has been expectedly named as the captain and he is brimming with confidence about the team’s chances in Azlan Shah Hockey. Though the tournament is only an invitational event, India have still opted for a strong combination that has only three changes from the team that played in last December’s Champions Trophy in Bhubaneswar. Danish Mujtaba, Lalit Upadhyay and Gurjinder Singh have made way for midfielder Chinglensana Singh and forwards Satbir Singh and Mandeep Singh. While Sardar will lead the side, goalkeeper PR Sreejesh will continue to be his deputy. Harjot Singh will be the second goalkeeper and the team will have five defenders in Gurbaj Singh, Rupinder Pal Singh, Birendra Lakra, Kothajit Singh and VR Raghunath. In the midfield, Sardar will be assisted by Manpreet Singh, Dharamvir Singh, Chinglensana and SK Uthappa, while Ramadeep Singh, SV Sunil, Akashdeep Singh, Nikkin Thimmaiah, Satbir and Mandeep will spearhead India’s forward line.
India take on Korea in their first match on April 5, followed by games against New Zealand on April 6, Malaysia on April 8, Canada on April 9 and Australia on April 11. The final and placing’s games will be played on April 12. Incidentally, Sardar Singh was honored with an Indian civil award, Padma Shree last Monday in recognition of his contribution to Indian hockey.