Eyes firmly set on retaining the numero uno status in the continent, favourites India face a tricky campaign-opener against Japan in the men’s Asia Cup hockey tournament starting here on Wednesday.
The Asia Cup will be the beginning of new phase in Indian hockey as it would be newly-appointed coach Sjoerd Marijne’s first test post the sacking of Roelant Oltmans.
It would be an arduous task for the 43-year-old Marijne to fill in the big shoes of Oltmans, who made a significant contribution to Indian hockey in his four-year tenure, lifting the Asian powerhouse from 12 to sixth in the world rankings. Last edition’s runner-up India, led by midfielder Manpreet Singh, will be eyeing a perfect start to their campaign in Pool A which also features arch-rivals Pakistan and hosts Bangladesh.
Pool B, meanwhile, consists of defending champions Korea, Malaysia, China and minnows Oman. The opening match of a tournament always holds greater significance for any team and India too would be hoping for a positive start ahead of their clashes against Bangladesh and Pakistan on October 13 and 15 respectively.
“The opening match is always challenging because we need to get over early nervousness and find our rhythm. The team is upbeat and ready for the first challenge,” said skipper Manpreet on the eve of their opener. For Manpreet and India, the Asia Cup is a chance to assert their supremacy in the continent. “We are aware that we go into this tournament as the highest-ranked team and we will aim to keep up the No.1 status,” the skipper has said.
The Indians last played Japan in the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup earlier this year where they won the encounter 4-3. But the Indians can ill-afford to take Japan lightly as the Japanese have shown in the past that they have the ability to play fast-paced hockey with good attacks, making them an unpredictable team. The Sultan Azlan Shah Cup was a prime example of this unpredictability as Japan stunned reigning world champions Australia 3-2.
“We have seen how they play and they are definitely one of the fastest improving sides in Asia. We can never take Japan to be an easy team,” the India skipper said. The Asia Cup is also India’s lone international outing before the yearending big event — the FIH Hockey World League Final to be held in Bhubaneswar.
So after giving some top junior players good exposure in the recent tour of Europe, India have named a squad which has a good blend of youth and experience. Goalkeepers Akash Chikte and Suraj Karkera retained their spots whereas defenders Harmanpreet Singh and Surender Kumar make a return after being rested for the Europe Tour. The tournament will also witness the return of seasoned pros like former skipper Sardar Singh, Akashdeep Singh, Satbir Singh and SV Sunil, who has been named the vice-captain.
The tournament will also give new coach Marijne a fair idea about what needs to done in the next 15 months, which will witness some high-profile tournaments like the Hockey World League Final, Asian Games, Commonwealth Games and the World Cup.
“The Asia Cup 2017 is a fresh start not just for me but also for the team which is mentally prepared to return home with the title,” Marijne had said.
“The Asia Cup is where I will get to see how the team reacts in match situations and where we are lacking and need immediate improvement,” he added. In the other match of the day, Pakistan will take on hosts Bangladesh in Pool A.