Putting behind the disappointments of last year, the Indian men’s hockey team will look for a winning start when they take on Asian Games gold medallists Japan in their opening encounter of the 28th Sultan Azlan Shah Cup in Ipoh, Malaysia on Saturday.
Despite being without the guidance of a coach and a series of injuries to several players – most recent being Gurjant Singh who returned home after fracturing his nose during a practice match – the Indian team is confident of a good show.
“Japan, Korea and hosts Malaysia will be the teams to watch out for. They are traveling with full squads and they will pose a stiff challenge for us,” skipper Manpreet Singh said on the eve of their opening match.
“The youngsters will need to step up their game and I believe having fresh faces can be an advantage as the possibility of the opponents knowing much about the new comers is less.”
The Indian team reached Ipoh on Monday and have been going about their routine to get used to the humid conditions. On Thursday, the team played a practice match against hosts Malaysia and are geared up for a good start to the tournament.
India’s previous outing at Sultan Azlan Shah ended with the team finishing fifth but saw some good performances by a young unit combined with a few senior players.
The team had lost narrowly (2-3) to Olympic champions Argentina in their first match, drew with England 1-1, lost to eventual champions Australia 2-4 and beat Malaysia 5-1. Though they lost 2-3 to Ireland in the round robin stage, they beat them 4-1 in the placing match.
“Youngsters have always used the platform to come up with memorable performances here and though the forward line barring Mandeep Singh has about 12 caps between each other, we are hopeful they will soak up the pressure early on and deliver,” Manpreet said.
“It’s important for us seniors to back all the youngsters in the team and guide them through the tournament to get the best out of them,” he added.
India have been crowned champions in 1985, 1991, 1995, 2009 and shared the honours with South Korea in 2010.
In most recent years, the Indian team settled for silver in 2016 after losing to Australia and bronze in 2017.