October 20, 2016Print : Sports
KARACHI: Even as rampaging India look to regain the title, holders Pakistan will go all out to retain the Asian Champions Trophy men’s hockey tournament which explodes into action in Malaysia on Thursday (today).
The Pakistanis will take on hosts Mlayasia in their opening game of the tournament in Kuantan today.
The most eagerly-awaited game of the round-robin league will be the India-Pakistan clash on Sunday.
Pakistan’s campaign had a tottering start with captain Mohammad Irfan failing to make it to Kuantan. Reportedly unable to retrieve his passport from another embassy, Irfan was not with the Pakistan team that landed in Malaysia and now he has been left out of the tournament altogether. Irfan has now been replaced as captain by Fareed Ahmed, the highest capped member of the squad with 207 appearances for Pakistan.
Pakistan have won the Asian Champions Trophy twice after being runners up in the inaugural edition. Pakistan defeated India 5-4 in the final in 2012 and then retained the title in 2013 by prevailing 3-1 over Japan in the title encounter. In 2013, when India sent their under-21 side, they did not even feature in the final. India have one gold and one silver medal, beside the fifth-place in 2013. Hosts Malaysia have consistently got the bronze medal in all three editions.
Asian Games gold medalists India start as the favourites to reclaim the Asian Champions Trophy.
Winners of the inaugural Asian Champions Trophy at Ordos five years ago, India have since then been indifferent in fielding their best squad for this competition, which suffered from lack of enthusiasm among the continent’s hockey elite.
After two editions of the annual event were not conducted in 2014 and 2015, the Asian Champions Trophy got a boost from the International Hockey Federation’s (FIH) decision to include it in the qualification system for future Olympics and World Cups. The FIH decision has attracted the top Asian hockey talent to the Malaysian post city of Kuantan which will see quality action from October 20 to 30.
Fielding their best-available squad that was marred by a spate of injuries, India’s billing as the hot favourites could put them under pressure. Twice defending champions Pakistan, who are the best performing team in the Asian Champions Trophy’s short history, and former Asian champions South Korea will be eager to pull off a surprise against the higher-ranked opponents.
Indian team coach Roelant Oltmans has implored his side for positive results in this outing. “Our quarterfinal ouster in the Olympics was a disappointment, but it has instilled a belief in the players that they can match the best in the world. Now, Indian hockey fans will be looking for some good results,” says Oltmans.
Ranked number six in the world and way ahead of the other teams competing in this tournament, the Indian players are aware that nothing less than the title will be deemed as a positive result. By virtue of their Asian Games gold medal, India were the only Asian team to feature in the Olympic Games and their preliminary pool victory over eventual Olympic gold medalists Argentina was the spotlight for PR Sreejesh-led side.
India are eager to prove that injury-caused absence of their playmaker Manpreet Singh and livewire right winger S V Sunil has not blunted their strike-power. Also missing from the squad is seasoned defender VR Raghunath. Manpreet’s absence will see the return of former captain Sardar Singh to the centre-half postion, while the experienced Birender Lakra will return from his injury-forced absence to step into Raghunath’s position. Akashdeep Singh and Ramandeep Singh, who were originally rested, were recalled to the squad after Sunil failed to recover from the wrist injury he sustained during the Olympics.