India to test Olympics readiness in Azlan hockey
Five-time champions India seek a return to the podium after a year's gap and boost their confidence ahead of the Olympic Games as they begin their campaign in the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup hockey tournament with a match against New Zealand, in Ipoh, Malaysia, on Thursday.
Outright winners in 2009 and joint-champions with South Korea in 2010, India finished a disappointing sixth in the seven-nation field last year, but this time they are looking for nothing less than a podium finish.India have come to Ipoh after securing qualification for the London Olympics, but will have to fight it out with five other teams that have booked places at the Games.
The task, thus, will not be easy as all the teams, except hosts Malaysia, are placed higher than India in the FIH rankings.
The tournament assumes significance in the run-up to the Games, as six of the seven teams in the fray will head for London in two months' time.
Ranked fourth in the FIH chart, Great Britain are a formidable title contender in the absence of defending champions Australia, who have skipped this tournament to focus on preparation for the Olympics.Great Britain had their first title of this tournament 18 years ago in 1994.
Image: The Indian hockey team
'We'll play to win, but focus will be on the Olympics'
India coach Michael Nobbs said past successes or failures in this tournament will not play on the minds of his players. The focus, he insisted, is on providing tough match exposure to the players ahead of the Olympic campaign.
"We'll play to win, but the focus will be on the Olympics. With only 16 places in the Olympics squad, I want to give everyone a chance to secure a berth in the Olympic squad," Nobbs said ahead of India's opening outing against New Zealand.
"Our team is shaping well and to my satisfaction. There are several things we still need to work on," he added.
"We've come here with our top players, as this outing is crucial in our Olympic preparation. The Indian players can do with more match practice.
"We'd earlier planned to send the India 'A' team here, but changed it as the tournament offered an opportunity to play on the blue turf that will be used at the Olympic Games," Nobbs said.
India's first exposure to the recently-introduced blue turf was in London's four-nation Olympic Test event, where the team failed to make an impression against much higher-ranked opponents and finished at the bottom of the competition, but Nobbs said the experience of playing on the blue turf is of immense help to the side.
Image: Sardar Singh tackles Richard Alexander of Great Britain on the blue turf during the Olympics test event in London
Photographs: Paul Gilham/Getty Images
Yuvraj Walmiki returns to the squad
Two-time champions South Korea, Asia's highest-rated team at number six in the world rankings, and reigning Asian Games champions Pakistan, at number eight, head the continent's challenge, while a young Malaysian team is aspiring to overcome the disappointment of floundering in the Olympic qualifiers in Ireland two months ago.
Malaysia, at number 14 in the FIH rankings, is the only team in the tournament ranked below India.
Young striker Yuvraj Walmiki makes a comeback to the Indian team after recoving from a hamstring injury that occurred during the Olympic qualifiers in February, but the team is without Gurwinder Singh Chandi, who has been left out to recuperate from a similar injury.
Nobbs is hopeful of Chandi being back in contention for the Olympic squad.
Completing the tournament line-up are Pan-American champions and world number nine Argentina, who won the Azlan Shah title on their maiden appearance by defeating India in the 2008 final, and seventh-ranked New Zealand.
South Korea and New Zealand feature in the same preliminary group as India at the Olympic Games.
Image: Yuvraj Walmiki
Photographs: Paul Kane/Getty Images