S. Thyagarajan

Chennai: As the curtain goes up to open a new vista on the seventh edition of the Asia Cup on Friday, the continental hockey community is in a mood of feverish speculation to estimate the emerging power equations. What lies ahead is beyond assertive prognosis.

What has enhanced this chapter’s significance as much as its relevance relates to the status accorded as a ranking event. Almost each one of the 11 teams — the highest ever since the Asia Cup — stands to benefit.

Focus on India

Indisputably, the focus is on India. After two podium finishes this year since the new coach Joaquim Carvalho took over, there is a filament of expectation. India is battling for a spot in the Olympics. Unless a confidence-raising performance is achieved, the mood of despair will continue to haunt.

India begins its campaign with a match against China, to which it lost in the Asian Games at Doha, triggering an avalanche of criticism.

The morale was shaken beyond measure. Even the 5-3 win at Azlan Shah Cup failed to mollify the mood. The shows at Ipoh and Boom in the Champions Challenge did not match the inherent strength of the squad.

Trace of logic

The shuffle that followed contains a trace of logic.

The return of drag-flicker Raghunath, and the seasoned Ignace Tirkey, substantiates that.

The strength is the mid-field where Gurbaj, Bimal, Prabhodh and Ignace can contribute substantially with the support of the defence headed by the stalwart, Dilip Tirkey.

The success of the frontline depends largely on how well the unit is able to achieve harmony. The experience and craft of Rajpal Singh, Tushar Khandekar, Prabhjot Singh and Shivendra Singh generate hope. So far that has remained unrealised.

Which of the two among Korea, India and China, will be in the last four is a guessing game. Korea, the powerhouse of Asia, is on a voyage of build up for the Olympics, having made the grade after the gold in Doha. Korea’s record is enviable in the last two decades. Penalty-hitter Jang Jong Hyun is its trump card. Coach Song believes that Jong is bound to be among the top scorers here.

China coach upbeat

The Korean coach for the Chinese team, Kim Sang Ryul, is convinced that no team in the world can beat his outfit easily. His assertion stems from the silver gained at Doha, and in the recent Test event at Beijing ahead of Pakistan and Malaysia. The team may miss Li Song’s proficiency.

Undeniably, Pakistan is the favourite in Pool A. The recent spell of inconsistency notwithstanding, manager-cum-coach Islahuddin, believes the team is in a right frame of mind to regain the Cup, last won in 1989 in New Delhi.

With mercurial strikers like Rehan Butt, Shakeel Abbasi and Tariq Aziz, helped by flickers in the calibre of Imran Khan and Imran Warsi, the optimism exuded by Islahuddin is not misplaced.

Japan is an improved lot. The World Cup at Monchengladbach, where it finished ninth, proved this. Fourth at Doha, the team is in fine nick.

The player to fear is Takahiko Yamabori. Any team that concedes a penalty corner does so at its own peril against Yamabori’s strikes.

It is incredibly true that Malaysia is yet to win a medal in the Asia Cup.

With right credentials as a major power in the continent, the team has been inconsistent, which is attributed to its inexperience.

The silver at Azlan Shah and bronze at the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne were two shining moments.

Coach Sarjit Singh, who took charge in the wake of the devastating result at Doha where the team finished sixth, has his task cut out.

The Asia Cup is all set to take off. Fasten your seat belts and wait for the pulsating moments to unfold.

The pools:

A: Pakistan, Japan, Malaysia, Hong Kong (China), Singapore. B: Korea, India (holder), China, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Thailand.

Friday’s matches:

Malaysia v Singapore (7 a.m.), Thailand v Bangladesh (9-30 a.m.); Korea v Sri Lanka (3 p.m.); Pakistan v Hong Kong (5 p.m.), India v China (7 p.m.).

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