New-look India face mighty Australia in Azlan Shah opener
Ipoh (Malaysia): It will be a test of character for a young and new-look Indian team when it takes on the world champions Australia in its opening encounter of the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup hockey tournament here tomorrow.
The match between six-time champions Australia and five-time winners India is being billed as the clash of the day.
India`s chief coach Michael Nobbs came here with a development squad, led by Danish Mujtaba, after resting six of his senior players, including inspirational skipper Sardar Singh for the tournament.
Nobbs saw the Azlan Shah Cup to build a strong reserve pool for Indian hockey as he opted to rest some key players like Sardar Singh, S V Sunil and V R Raghunath and instead blooded in youngsters.
The fact that India`s junior team coach Baljit Singh Saini is accompanying the side is an indication that the team management is looking far beyond the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup.
Some of the young names that came to the fore during the inaugural Hockey India League -- Mandeep Singh, Malak Singh, Gurjinder Singh, Gurmail Singh, Amit Rohidas, PT Rao and Sushant Tirkey -- will get a much-needed international exposure from this tournament.
"We had some objectives in mind when we selected the team for the Azlan Shah Cup. Our main aim is to build a strong team for the Junior World Cup, and we can achieve that only by giving as much international exposure as possible to the junior players," Nobbs had said.
"It is also a good opportunity to draft in some junior players as they are the future of Indian hockey. It will also create a healthy competition for places in the team.
"Mandeep`s (Singh) performance in the Hockey World League is a prime example of the fact that junior players need development. Mandeep found international hockey lot tougher than Hockey India League. He has got talent but require development," he added.
Nobbs` decision to rest seniors is justified as the Azlan Shah Cup is India`s only engagement before the back-to-back series against Pakistan at home and away, which undoubtedly is of much greater interest for the eight-time Olympic champions.
"The other objective behind the decision to send the development team was to give rest to some senior players, who are either exhausted or are carrying injuries, because we have a busy schedule ahead," the coach insisted.
The run-up to the Azlan Shah Cup, however, was far from rosy for the Indians, who threatened to withdraw from the event over government`s refusal to fund the travel expenses but reversed their decision following a quick resolution of the issue.
Apart from Australia, India will also play Korea (Mar 10), arch-rivals Pakistan (Mar 12), defending champions New Zealand (Mar 14) and hosts Malaysia (Mar 16) in their round-robin matches.
In their quest for a seventh title, Australia coach Ric Charlesworth, on the other hand, has included a good mix of youth and experience in his side.
Although even they are looking to use the tournament as an ideal platform to spot talents for the Junior World Cup to be held in India later this year.
The mighty Kookaburas are keen to start the tournament on the right note after giving it a miss last year. Boosted by the presence of Ben Bishop as the additional coach, the Aussies on form and past record look to be the best bet for the title.
The 21st edition of the Azlan Shah Cup, however, will open with a clash between title holders New Zealand and Pakistan, followed by match between India and Australia and hosts Malaysia and Korea.