New Delhi: Hockey is back at its grooming ground - the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup. The tournament's importance this year goes up a few notches than just checking vital signs of young prospects. Sitting at top of 2018 that includes the Commonwealth Games (CWG), Champions Trophy, Asian Games and the World Cup, this edition of the tournament in Malaysia has added significance for the participating teams eyeing a ‘year of podium finishes’.
India have focused all their attention and preparation on a direct entry to 2020 Olympics by defending their Asiad gold and then ending the 43-year medal hiatus in the World Cup at home. On that path, the Azlan Shah Cup in Ipoh - like the start of every new hockey season - is India's first significant destination. However, being too close to the CWG in Australia (starts April 4), Hockey India (HI) opted to keep its key players out of the tournament and test waters with youngsters.
But the exercise to rest seniors like Manpreet Singh, PR Sreejesh, Rupinder Pal Singh and Akashdeep Singh is also a tactic to scan the applications for any remaining CWG slots up for grabs. Three of those applicants – Mandeep Mor, Sumit Kumar Jr and Shailanand Lakra – will make their senior-team debut.
Keeping an eye on them will be coach Sjoerd Marijne, who had a dream start to his reign by winning the Asia Cup and a bronze at the Hockey World League (HWL) Finals last year. But a tick-tock in Marijne’s brain will repeatedly remind him that his coaching skills will be tested to the T against the world's best over the next 10 months.
"Every player who goes to Azlan Shah has to show good performance. I will be watching very closely," Marijne said.
Also on Marijne's check-list will be the name Sardar Singh, who was left out of the squad for HWL Final but will lead the side in Ipoh in the absence of regular skipper Manpreet. Sardar, 31, returns as captain since being removed from the post before the Rio Olympics in 2016. Incidentally, Sardar first captained India at the 2008 Azlan Shah Cup. Those memories will freshen up when he pulls the captain's armband up his sleeve.
"Whenever you lead the country, it's always an honour. I have got a chance again and will give it my best shot,” the noted central midfielder said. Sardar’s career has been at crossroads over the past year, especially since coach Roelant Oltmans was fired by HI. While his performance has remained up and down, Marijne’s strategies have revolved around young, fast legs.
Those factors combined, Sardar has of late played more as ‘free man’ in the defence than as attacking midfielder, and sometimes given the boot. It led to whispers that Sardar maybe contemplating retirement and Azlan Shah Cup could be his last tournament. But he has quelled those as rumours.
“Neither the coach nor the High-Performance Director (David John) or anyone from Hockey India has talked about anything like that (Azlan Shah as last tournament) with me,” said Sardar. “Rather, I am working hard on my fitness and have been clearing all the fitness tests.”
Retirement is an individual’s own decision and Marijne reckoned this Azlan Shah Cup is an important destination in the twilight of Sardar’s career. “Too soon to say if this will be his last tournament. After Azlan Shah, we will see how he is shaping up,” said Marijne.
In short, Sardar needs to convince Marijne to stay on course for World Cup. Coming to the tournament, which is not an FIH event but still one of the best organized, finishing on the podium is the least you can expect from five-time champions India, who have won 14 medals overall at the event. But it will be tougher than last year, when they won bronze.
World No.1 Australia, Rio Olympics gold-medallists Argentina and England have landed in Ipoh with strong squads, while hosts Malaysia and Ireland will stay at their tenacious best. On that note, India, experimenting with a mixed squad, can’t expect any easy days in the week-long tournament.
Sardar in the midfield, Surender Kumar in defence and vice-captain Ramandeep Singh in the frontline will be asked to play the role of leaders on the field. But with penalty-corner specialists Rupinder and Harmanpreet Singh rested, the young Varun Kumar and Dipsan Tirkey will be thrown in at the deep end.
Marijne left the onus on players to grab their opportunities in a year that offers a chance to stake claim and shine at some of the biggest stages the game has to offer. “When you create space for players, it’s for them to step up,” the coach said.
The Sultan Azlan Shah Cup could be their calling.