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Azlan Shah Cup Sets the Pace

Sandeep Nakai, South Asian Sports Editor of the Associated Press, takes a closer look at one of Asia’s premier events and the rivalry between India and Pakistan.

Growing in stature as Asia’s leading competition, the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup becomes the trailblazer for exciting hockey in the Olympic year, providing a glimpse of several key teams vying to compete at Athens in seven months’ time.

Brushing aside the controversy over Malaysia’s protests against India not fielding their best side, the seven-nation competition evolved into a heady competition with Germany returning to the venue of their maiden World Cup triumph, defending champion Pakistan showcasing their prowess under the stewardship of Dutch coach Roelant Oltmans and World Cup silver medalist Australia testing their mettle in the run-up to the Olympics.

Also unveiling their prowess ahead of the Madrid Olympic qualifier were Asian Games champion and 2000 Olympics silver medalists South Korea and European Cup finalists Spain - under another Dutch coach Maurits Hendriks.

Seeking to provide rest to some of their top players ahead of the Olympic qualifier, India were the odd-ones out, leaving out several of its leading strikers in a decision which almost shut them out of the tournament.

Given India’s standing as one of the big draws for spectators and attracting a massive television audience back home, the organizers obviously wanted the Asia Cup holders to bring their best line-up, and made no bones about their disappointment when India did not relent from the position of having the right to pick their team.

Media speculation that India were planning to field a second-string team prompted the Malaysian Hockey Federation’s Secretary, S.Satgunam, to seek clarification about the composition of the side.

Insisting that the players’ rotation formula would stay, India explained that the team playing in the tournament would be the national side and have senior players on it.

The Malaysian concern stemmed from having hosted an occasional second-string Indian side in the past, but Satgunam said they decided to go with India’s version 'in good faith.'

The absence of some young stars was somewhat made up by the return of skipper Dhanraj Pillay, who is seeking to play in his fourth Olympic Games at Athens and remains one of the biggest crowd favourites in Malaysia, where he has often appeared in the domestic league.

Still fresh in the minds of Asia’s hockey followers was India’s inability to play in the tournament last year, when the government stopped the team from boarding the flight at the 11th hour in a protest against the mistreatment of some Indian Information Technology personnel by Malaysian police. Top level diplomatic intervention resolved that issue, but the Azlan Shah Cup had long finished.

India has won the Azlan Shah Cup thrice - in 1985, ‘91 and ’95 - but has occasionally sent an experimental side, which had spiralled into a dispute in the past. The recent cancellation of an India-Malaysia junior series had also contributed to the friction ahead of this tournament, for which the Indian Hockey Federation picked its junior national coach Harinder Singh. It later confirmed that chief coach Rajinder Singh would be in Kuala Lumpur as an observer.

India’s return to the Azlan Shah Cup comes in the wake of the revival of the famous India-Pakistan rivalry with the restoration of top-grade sporting links between the sub-continental nations, ending a three-year disruption in the wake of an armed conflict in the summer of 1999.

Pakistan’s participation in the inaugural Afro-Asian Games in October at the southern Indian city of Hyderabad appeared to set the tenor for revival of the Indo-Pak hockey series that last took place in 1999. A further indication was the Indian government’s approval for its cricketers to play the first test series in Pakistan in 15 years during March-April, 2004.

India defeated Pakistan to win the men’s gold medal at the Afro-Asian Games, repeating the victory in their league encounter and earlier in the Asia Cup final at Kuala Lumpur in September last.

Pakistan are looking to start their revival after a string of disappointing results, and switching the team management a few times, with the only tournament they won last year, beating 2001 winners Germany in the final.

Failing to win an Asian Games medal for the first time at Busan in 2002, Pakistan is seeking a repeat of the Hans Jorritsma experiment, which helped them win the 1994 World Cup.

Following the footsteps of Jorritsma, under whom Pakistan played its last World Cup final, this will be the first international engagement for Oltmans, 49, who accompanied the Pakistan side to the Afro-Asian Games mainly to analyse the players coming under his wing.

Oltmans’ run of success with the Netherlands team in late 90s included winning hockey’s own version of the Grand Slam: the Olympics, World Cup and Champions Trophy, and Pakistan’s 'Green Machine' is hoping for a revival of its winning spirit.

Despite having already qualified for the Olympics by winning last year’s European Cup, the Florian Kunz-led Germany took the opportunity to get over their rustiness and return to outdoor competitions. The Germany team included a large number of players which picked up the gold medal at the World Cup, and are keen to add one from the Olympics.

Oceania champions Australia, not required to play in the Olympic qualifier, sought to fine-tune their combination as they hit the road for a long programme ahead of the Athens Games, while Asian Games winners South Korea attempted to boost their firepower by bringing back mercurial striker Song Seung-Tae from a one-year layoff following the Busan Asian Games.

Hosts Malaysia, Champions Challenge winners Spain and India began their voyage of discovery with an eye on the Olympic qualifier coming up in two months.


Final positions:
1. Australia, 2. Pakistan, 3. Korea, 4. Germany, 5. Spain, 6. Malaysia, and 7. India.

Player of the tournament:
Lee Jung Seon (Korea); Top scorer: Sohail Abbas (Pakistan) — 10 goals; Promising player: Santi Freixa (Spain); Fairplay: Australia.

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