S. Thyagarajan

Champion India does not have a specialist drag-flicker

Ipoh: Is Asian hockey losing its identity? It is a tempting poser. The gloom surfaces in the context of the abysmal show by the three continental teams — Korea, Pakistan and India — in the recent World Cup. This puzzle gets enhanced relevance on the eve of another edition of the Sultan Azlan Shah international set to unfold on Thursday.

India, Korea, Pakistan, China and Malaysia constitute the Asian challenge in the seven-nation venture. Australia, the World champion, and Egypt complete the line-up.

The event is not exactly a theatre for excellence; it has been, and continues to be a testing ground. Every team here, including the Aussies, is aiming to build a base.

Barring Korea, China and Egypt, the rest of the contestants view it as a step in preparation for the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi.

India's new-look outfit for the defence of the cup is without Sandeep Singh. Last year, he led the team and emerged the top scorer.

Intriguing however is the fact that India, which takes on China in the opening tie today, does not have a specialist drag-flicker.

Sidelined

A handful of seniors who were part of the squad in the Delhi World Cup have been sidelined to create space for a set of youngsters. The selectors, however, have recalled seasoned goalkeeper, Bharat Chettri, along with wing-half Prabodh Tirkey.

The shuffled team sports a fresh look. It is fairly balanced too, in mid-field and attack. Gurbaj Singh and Prabodh Tirkey with Sardar Singh lend the middle line a touch of stability. The defence cannot be proclaimed as strong.

Newcomers Rupinder Pal and Prabhakar are yet to be judged at this level. The frontline is strong and sharp. Captain Rajpal Singh, along with Tushar Khandekar, Arjun Halappa, and Shivendra Singh, can be lethal if the combination functions in full harmony. India has won the trophy four times — 1985, 1991, 1995 and 2009. Pakistan, winner in successive years in 1999, 2000 and then in 2003, is also on an experimental mode. Stalwarts like Sohail Abbas, Rehan Butt, Salman Akbar and Shakeel Abbasi, who were subjected to considerable flak for their failure in the World Cup — Pakistan finished last for the first time — were discarded to pave way for young blood.

Flicker Mohammad Imran leads the outfit under the new coach, Kwaja Junaid. The turmoil that followed Pakistan's debacle after the Delhi World Cup needs no detailed reiteration here.

Spectacular record

Australia's record is spectacular. Only once in 10 appearances has the team gone back missing a podium finish. The Aussies have grabbed gold five times, taken two silvers and an equal number of bronzes.

“We have purposefully chosen a young squad for this tournament. It will go a long way in exposing our squad to a number of quality teams, giving us even more experience and helping us add to the depth of our squad,” observed Ric Charlesworth, about fielding a young team that includes only a solitary veteran in Grant Schubert.

Korea's solitary trophy triumph was in 1996. The team had figured in the final four times.

For the home team, which narrowly missed a World Cup spot after going down to New Zealand in the qualifier, this is the first step to Commonwealth Games.

Malaysia is yet to win the trophy in all the 18 attempts since inception in 1983. The endeavour continues relentlessly. The talk of having a foreign coach — the name of the Dutch maestro Roelant Oltmans appeared in media discussions — has fizzled out.

As the first men's international after the World Cup, the event is bound to generate considerable interest for the game's aficionados.

Thursday's matches: Korea v Egypt (2-35 p.m. IST), India v China (4-35 p.m.); Pakistan v Malaysia (6-35 p.m.) .

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