Ipoh: Otherwise a quaint city of Perak, Ipoh is once again ready for it’s annual hockey drumroll – the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup.
The Sultan Azlan Shah Cup marks the beginning of an international Hockey season in Asia. While, two of the continent’s major hockey nations – Pakistan and South Korea – are not here for this edition, India will vie for their fifth crown while hosts Malaysia will resume search for their maiden title.
Nine-time winners Australia will look to take their title count into double figures and will be accompanied by Oceania neighbours New Zealand. The European representation is in the hands of Great Britain. And hockey minnows Japan, hoping to create a few upsets, complete the six-team line-up for the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup beginning Saturday.
Sultan Azlan Shah Cup being the best platform to test young blood, all big teams have arrived for the event with a fair share of new players. Both India and New Zealand are carrying six players who participated in the junior World Cup last year. Australia and Great Britain too have fresh legs in their ranks, though the Kookaburras have also brought back a few old warhorses like Eddie Ockenden and Mathew Swann to see how much gas is left in their tank.
A day before the tournament begins, Dragflick tries to bring it’s readers the Predictor, which is a lowdown on the chances each team has of winning the title. Let’s take a look.
AUSTRALIA: The top-ranked Aussies remain the best bet to lift their 10th Azlan Shah Cup. They beat India hands down in 2016. And this year, continued to be led by the experienced Mark Knowles, the Kookaburras will most definitely make it to the final. The rest depends on how they play on the day of the summit clash.
GREAT BRITAIN: The Britishers haven’t enjoyed much success in the tournament, winning it just once – way back in 1994, which is also the only time they made it to the final. Missing Ashley Jackson and a few other big names in their ranks, the team from Great Britain will do well be in the Top 3.
INDIA: After Australia, it’s the blue brigade from India as hot favourites for the trophy. The No. 6 team in the world recently saw its juniors lifting the world cup, which is enough indication of thebelief they have rediscovered in themselves. It also highlights in the Champions League silver and the bronze they won in the last Hockey World League. If everything goes according to the Dragflick ‘Previewdictor’, it’s going to be a repeat of last year’s final, i.e., India vs Australia.
MALAYSIA: The hosts are still haunted by the thought that they have never won the tournament despite the mammoth support they enjoy every time. The 14th-ranked Malaysians came close to breaking the jinx five times but each time finished runners-up. What they can take heart from is the fact that they entered the final consecutively in 2013 and 2014, and finished fourth last year. At home, they remain a dangerous
proposition and are a serious contender for bronze medal, but a couple of lucky breaks may see them through to the final.
NEW ZEALAND: The Black Sticks are in experimental mode as well,leaving behind some experienced campaigners either due to injury or their European commitments. The World No. 8 Kiwis will be led by Arun Panchia, who also captained them against Pakistan recently. They will be disappointed if they don’t finish in the top three bracket, and it’s not beyond them if their youngsters can get their act together to
make up for the absence of big guns like Simon Child.
JAPAN: The Japanese, who rank the lowest at No. 16 among the six teams, are still taking baby steps at the world stage. But if they sniff a chance, they will home in and create an upset. That’s what every team has to guard against when facing Japan. They will be happy to go home with a few big fish in their bag.