26th Sultan Azlan Shah Cup 2017: India Gear up for 'Season Opener' in Malaysia

Ipoh: It rains almost everyday here, so much so that it's a given that it will pour in the evening. Thursday was no different; in fact, it was a little stormy - just two days before one of the region's most celebrated sports event, the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup, begins to bring hockey lovers together.

A tropical nature of the climate, with tree-laden mountains surrounding Ipoh, makes rain and humidity part of the lifestyle. People are used to it and carry umbrellas as a habit. In short, it never scares or dampens their spirits to have a week-long hockey party.

In absolute contrast with the sleepy nature of the town, the Azlan Shah Stadium brims with energy during it's showpiece event. But while people in the stands bob up and down, it's business as usual on the pitch.

For India, the tournament marks the beginning of a new season that will lead to the Asia Cup and then the FIH Hockey World League finals in India this December. That 2018 will bring with it the Asian Games, Commonwealth Games and World Cup — preparations begin now for all six nations participating in the tournament.

Historically, the tournament has served as breeding ground to test the skills of future stars. The objective remains the same for this 26th edition of the event — especially for developing hockey nations like Japan — who will be a part of the tournament as the lowest ranked (16th) team.

Meanwhile, India possess six youngsters and three debutants in their squad. The 18-member party will have the adrenaline rush provided by Junior Hockey World Cup Winners Harjeet Singh, Harmanpreet Singh and Mandeep Singh, as well as new to the senior team Sumit, Manpreet Singh Junior and Gurinder Singh. 

Skipper Sreejesh's goal-keeping deputy, Suraj Karkera, would have been the fourth debutant to complete the list but he got injured just before team's departure and couldn't be a part of the squad. In his place, Akash Chikte is travelling with the team now.

But coach Roelant Oltmans is not putting any pressure by comparing Indian rookies to the youngsters in the squads of Australia, New Zealand or Great Britain.

"I know New Zealand are bringing some six players from junior squad but to compare them (with India's) does not make sense for me right now," Oltmans said.

Skipper Sreejesh toes his coach's line but with clear instructions that these young legs will be closely watched.

"It is an important year for us with the Asia Cup and HWL final, which will be held later this year. We start with the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup, where we will get to see how well our juniors can live up to the billing,"
Sreejesh said.

Seasoned defender VR Raghunath wasn't even selected in the probables' list for the national camp, which sends a clear signal that players will be judged only on the basis of their performances and not from the names of the back of their jerseys.

On that note, Sardar Singh and Rupinder Pal Singh can consider themselves lucky to be travelling with the team.

"Though this year's HIL didn't go as planned for Punjab, I have worked hard in the 40-day camp and put in that extra hour or two of workout to ensure I am at the top of my game," Sardar said.

At the national camp in Bengaluru, Jugraj Singh and Bharat Chhetri were also present in the capacity of coaches. Jugraj as the drag-flicking coach while Chhetri was helping out the goalkeepers. And Oltmans stressed on the importance of having specialist coaches for the team.

"It's good to get more personal attention than what we can give because we have to deal with everyone. We have created a training atmosphere for goalkeepers where Bharat can work for a certain period and the response is very good," Oltmans explained.

Of the debutants, Sumit has been the most about young player to have broken on to the scene in recent time. With ability to switch roles swiftly, he is one peg who can fit in any hole and an absolute delight for a captain and coach.

Harmanpreet and Harjeet have already made their senior debuts sometime back. But at Azlan Shah, they can expect more match time than usual as Oltmans will like to throw them into the line of fire for longer duration now.

Akashdeep Singh had a good HIL for Uttar Paradesh Wizards, which helped him retain his spot. But Sunil can thank his stars after an average show with Punjab Warriors. He will need to deliver the goods now, with the likes of Sumit closing in on his heels.

On Friday, all teams will like to run a check-list before the tournament proper begins the following day.

Great Britain and New Zealand are missing key players, including Ashley Jackson and Simon Child respectively, either due to injury on league duties overseas. But none of the hockey nations mind that as they have always wanted youngsters to be the focus of attention in Azlan Shah.

However, nine-time champions Australia have recalled a few of the past stars like veteran midfielder Eddie Ockenden and defender Mathew Swann, giving them a chance to prove themselves for a possible place in HWL semifinals this June.

Ranked No. 6 in the world, India will also be part of the HWL semis in London, making it even more prudent for Oltmans to be clear about his choices. That will only keep players on their toes in Ipoh to win the trophy for the sixth time, seven years after they last did it in 2010.

Source:NEWS 18

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