India will hope to begin a new season on a strong note with a good performance at the 26th Sultan Azlan Shah Cup — beginning on Saturday — which is seen as a precursor to the Hockey World League (HWL) Semi-Final to be held in June.
Getting off to a good start in the season will be crucial in the lead-up to an all-important year where India also play the Asia Cup and Hockey World League Final in Bhubaneswar in the winter. The following year will see them compete at the Asian Games, Commonwealth Games, Asian Champions Trophy and World Cup in Bhubaneswar 2018 slated for next year.
Coming into this tournament, Roelant Oltmans-coached India had a 40-day long national camp where the players were put through a tough regime involving nearly five-six hours of intense training.
This year’s edition of the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup, which is scheduled to run from April 29 to May 6, will see England, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Japan and South Korea vie for top honours along with India.
Having arrived here in Malaysia a week before the start of the tournament, the Indian team has had enough time to get used to the humid conditions and is geared up for a good start at the tournament, according to captain P.R Sreejesh.
“The team is doing well. We have trained every single day after arriving here and I feel we have had a good five-six days to acclimatise to the conditions here,” said the ace goalkeeper.
India have picked four debutants — defender Gurinder Singh, midfielders Sumit and Manpreet and goalkeeper Suraj Karkera. While Gurinder, Sumit and Manpreet were part of the Junior World Cup winning squad, the 21-year-old Karkera was in the junior India squad that toured England in 2016. Harmanpreet Singh is also another member of the Junior World Cup winning side.
Manpreet Singh will be Sreejesh’s deputy and he will be joined by the experienced Sardar Singh, Chinglensana Singh Kangujam, Harjeet Singh, Sumit and Manpreet in the midfield.
The defence includes Rupinder Pal Singh, Pardeep Mor, Surender Kumar, Harmanpreet Singh and Gurinder Singh while the forward line will feature S.V Sunil, Talwinder Singh, Affan Yousuf, Akashdeep Singh and Mandeep Singh.
India will take on Great Britain in their first match on April 29. India last played them at the 36th FIH Champions Trophy in London last year where India won 2-1.
“But it’s a new team this year with a lot of youngsters. I think only about three or four members in their squad are senior players. But knowing the mental strength of the team, I know they will play with a lot of energy,” Sreejesh pointed out.
“First match is always a game turner and we definitely want to start on a great note and the mood in our dressing room is very upbeat right now,” said the 28-year-old.
The reason for Sreejesh’s optimism also stems from the 2-0 win they tasted against Japan in their practice match on April 26. It was young forward Mandeep Singh who scored both the goals for India and according to chief coach Roelant Oltmans, the team’s defence was “outstanding” in the match.