No percipient observer will venture to look beyond China as the favourite for the seventh Asia Cup hockey championship for women starting on Thursday.
True, China is not starting the event as the defending champion, the honour goes to Japan, but its credentials as the super power in the continent were established beyond a reasonable shadow of doubt at the Beijing Olympia, where the home team picked up a silver medal stretching the Netherlands in the final.
China is all set to stamp out the apprehension that arose after its miserable show in the last World Cup at Madrid (the team finished a surprising ninth) and the defeat sustained against Japan in the last edition in 2007.
Not only China will leave nothing to chance to regain the Cup, but, more importantly, it will strive to capture one of the two automatic berths for the next World Cup to come off at Rosario (Argentina) next year.
At Bangkok, China is placed in pool B along with India, former champion, and the two are expected to make the grade to last four.
Put on boards in Seoul in 1985, the women’s Asia Cup has traversed a long course to project an identity of its won as the qualifying event for the World Cup. Korea has a shining record, winning three of the six editions (1985, 1993 and 1999), but the emergence of China and Japan as key constituents has pushed Korea down the hill to some extent. Now, Korea has to ward off a strong challenge from Japan, the holder, in Pool B.
It will be imprudent to dismiss India’s role in the event as uneventful. India won the eight-nation competition in 2004 on the home turf under the leadership of Surajlata Devi with M.K. Kaushik as the chief coach.
Happily, Kaushik continues to be in the same role at the venue that should bring him pleasant memories of a gold medal win with the men’s team in the 1998 Asian Games.
India needs attention
Recent events lend hope to India attracting more than the usual attention this time. Not only has the team been well prepared for the challenge, but also shown results, notable one being the victory at the Champions Challenge II at Kazan.
No less than five players in the present squad have more than 100 international caps, the topper being Surinder Kaur with 189 international appearances.
Mamta Kharb, whose rise to fame came with the golden goal scored against England in the Commonwealth Games at Manchester in 2002, and the sharp attacker, Saba Anjum, constitute the striking force with Ritu Rani and Rani Rampaul rearing to go and prove their mettle. Rampaul, it must be recalled was the top scorer at Kazan.
Mid-fielder Asunta Lakra (sister of men’s international Brijendera Lakra) and defender Binita Toppo, have enough international exposure as does the goal-keeper Dipika Murty whose tally caps stands at 123.
11 teams in fray
Apart from the significance of being the denominator to identify the World Cup qualifier, the event also marks, for the first time, the number of teams competing entering double figures. There are now a total of 11 teams in the fray. While the top two will make the grade for next year’s World Cup, the teams placed in third, fourth and fifth positions are to compete in the three pre-world cup qualifiers to be held between January to April in 2010. .
A: China, India, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand.
B: Chinese Taipei, Hong Kong, China, Japan, Kazakhstan, Korea and Sri Lanka.
Thursday’s matches: Japan v Kazakhstan (12-30 p.m. IST), Korea v Sri Lanka (2-30 p.m.); Malaysia v Thailand (3 p.m.); India v Singapore (5 p.m.)