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India take their first step on the road to recovery when they begin their campaign in the 16th Sultan Azlan Shah Cup eight-nation hockey tournament with a match against Australia in Ipoh, Malaysia on Saturday.
India's fortunes touched the nadir last year that saw them finishing 11th at the World Cup and out of the medals in the Asian Games. As such, the Azlan Shah tournament represents first serious competition for the new-look Indian team that need to qualify for all the major international tournaments - the Champions Trophy, Olympics and the World Cup.
"It is a long process and we need to be patient. The first task is to get the players in competitive trim, develop a team and only then, hopefully, we would get the desired results," said Joaquim Carvalho, who took over from Vasudevan Baskaran as the chief coach barely a month back.
Carvalho, no stranger to disaster, having been a member of the Indian team that finished 12th at the World Cup in Willesden, London, felt that the players need to get their confidence back with regular international exposure.
"This is the real significance for us in this (Azlan Shah Cup) tournament," he pointed out.
The former midfielder though has not had the best of starts. A few key players like Dilip Tirkey and Arjun Halappa, who were the central figures in the recent Indian teams, were unavailable for selection. Further, experienced half-back Ignace Tirkey "opted out" of the tournament after playing two practice games earlier this week in Kuala Lumpur.
However, Carvalho preferred to look ahead. He fancied India's chances against Australia, the runners-up to Germany at the 2006 World Cup, when the two meet in the inaugural tie tomorrow. "It will be a tough game, but I will not rule out a strong result for us," he said.
India would be hoping that their relatively young and inexperienced midfield would be able to contain the swift Aussie forwards.
In this context, skipper Prabhodh Tirkey, a member of last year's World Cup side, would have added responsibility of guiding the half-line that would be critical to India's chances.
The deep defence, minus Dilip Tirkey, for long an inspirational force, too will have its task cut out and a lot is expected from the talented William Xalxo and of course, penalty corner specialist Ramachandra Raghunath, a last minute inclusion for the 2006 World Cup.
Carvalho's assistant Mohinder Pal Singh, himself a former penalty corner specialist, said Raghunath was coming along nicely but needed more exposure before he could be counted among the best in the World.
Carvalho felt that the Indian forward line could throw up a few surprises.
"We have a few strong players in Bharat Chakra and Sawarnjit Singh besides the experienced Prabhjot Singh and Rajpal Singh. So, if we click as a combination, then it will reflect in the results," he said.
Prabhjot, ignored for a few seasons, is staging a comeback and being the most experienced of the forwards, the onus will be on him to carry the attacks.
Meanwhile, Australia, still smarting from the defeat to Germany in the World Cup final last year, are without seven regular players, including the likes of Jamie Dwyer, Michael McCann, Travis Brooks and Dean Butler.
"We have included a few youngsters who did well in the recent National League. Our focus is to develop a strong side for the Olympic qualifier against New Zealand in September. That is our immediate target and the Azlan Shah Cup presents a good opportunity for our players to get together as a team," said coach Barry Dancer.
The Aussie team assembled in Kuala Lumpur earlier this week.
"We had only a couple of training sessions and are yet to play a full match since our Test series against the Netherlands at home in January," he said.
Dancer declined to talk about his team's chances against India, leave alone in the tournament. "Let us wait and see," was his reply when asked about Australia's prospects.
India and Australia, along with Argentina and China, are placed in Group A while Asian Games champions Korea, Canada, Malaysia and Pakistan form Group B. The top two teams at the end of the preliminary league advance to the knock-out semi-finals.
The Indians can expect tough games against the surprise Asian Games silver-medallists China on May 6 and the temperamental Argentina on May 9.
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