Edition-20 of the Azlan Shah hockey tournament unfolds on Thursday. Pakistan takes on New Zealand in the opening encounter in the seven-team competition viewed as the showpiece of Asia.

What invests this chapter with greater relevance is the fact that the event signals the start of the quest for an Olympic berth for five of the seven teams.

Minus Pakistan, which has ensured a place in next year's Olympics on the strength of its gold medal triumph at the Guangzhou Asian Games, and Great Britain, the host, the rest in the field — India, Australia, South Korea, New Zealand and Malaysia — are in various stages of preparation for the qualifiers.

India is here in search of a hat-trick of triumphs. It is also in line for a fourth successive final. Assessed realistically, however, the chances this time are grim, given the quality of the opposition and the team's frailties.

Injuries to Tushar Khandekar, Rajpal Singh and Bharath Chikkara have created weak spots. The decision to keep out Sandeep and Sardara is a subject for a critical debate.

A heavy burden is cast on the new leader Arjun Halappa. How well he marshals the available resources remains to be seen. He needs to rely on the support of Gurbaj Singh in the midfield, Shivendra Singh in attack, the energetic Mahadik in deep defence, and on the goalkeepers, Adrian and Chetri.

How successful Diwakar Ram will be in penalty-corner conversions remains to be seen. Of the others, focus should be on Roshan Minz, a hugely talented player, and Danish Mujtaba, the link-man.

Balanced team

A superficial glance over the list of players is sufficient to convince one that Great Britain emerges as the most balanced. Matt Daly's return gives the frontline a sharper edge. A combination that includes players of the calibre of Richard Alexander, Jonty Clarke, the Mantells, Richard and Simon, and James Tindell has all the ingredients of a champion.

Another side bound to cause ripples is Pakistan, notwithstanding the controversies that had plagued the squad before departure. Sohail Abbas, Rehan Buttt, Saleem Abbasi and Waseem Ahmed — all with impeccable credentials — enhance the stature of the squad under the leadership of Muhammad Imran with the Dutch coach, Michel van den Heuvel, adding his ingenuous in-puts.

The Kiwi professionalism and their indomitable spirit are well known. They have a splendid amalgam of youth like James Coughlan and seasoned campaigners like Dean Couzins, Phil Burrows and Simon Child.

Beset with injuries the Aussies may not be at their best. Yet they are decidedly a threat to all under the renowned and redoubtable Ric Charlesworth. Brent Dancer and Jonathan Charlesworth are two colts carrying a famous surname in the squad. Christopher Cierello will be the cynosure in the Aussie penalty corner drills.

The joint winners with India last year, the Koreans, are never to be underestimated.

Malaysia is a difficult unit to conquer at home. But after the silver medal in Guangzhou, it is a different lot, and is very much in the hunt. If the Malaysians can transform their sporadic incandescence into a level of consistency a cup victory cannot be dismissed as a pipedream.

The aficionados here wait with bated breath. What more, the contestants are raring to go.

Thursday's matches: Pakistan v New Zealand (1.35 p.m. IST); India v Korea (3.35 p.m.); Malaysia v Britain (5.35 p.m.).

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