The Indian men's hockey team will seek a fresh beginning under new coach Paul van Ass as the six-nation 24th Sultan Azlan Shah Cup starts at the Azlan Shah Stadium here on Sunday.India had a fruitful 2014 when they won the the Asian Games gold after 16 years. They gave a tough fight to Australia as well to finish a creditable fourth in the Champions Trophy.Now, the 18-member team is gearing up to play not only the first tournament of the year but also it will be the first assignment for Dutchman van Ass, who takes over the reins of the eight-time Olympic champions from Australian Terry Walsh.In the tournament that concludes on April 12, World No.9 India will face reigning World champion Australia, World No.7 New Zealand, World No.8 South Korea, World No.12 Malaysia and World No.15 Canada.
For the teams participating in the tournament, there will be added importance as it is the last major international before the Hockey World League (HWL) Semi-Finals in June.Although India have qualified for the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, they will also gain momentum with a good performance.The opening day of the tournament will witness Sardar Singh-led India facing South Korea. The competing teams last met each other in the semi-final of the Incheon Asian Games where the India defeated the hosts 1-0.The Korean team led by experienced Seungil Lee also had lost to India in the World Cup and will like to change the result on Saturday."Though all the matches are important for us but the opening match always plays a big role in every team's campaign," a statement quoted van Ass as saying.
"The good show surely enhances the confidence level of the players and brings very positive energy in the coaching staff as well. Boys are well-prepared and confident to take on the Korean team."Van Ass, who guided he Netherlands to silver medal finishes in the 2012 Olympic Games and the 2014 World Cup, said since he joined the team on March 16, the players have prepared well for the new challenge."We have spent good time together during the preparatory camp and that have helped us a lot. Team is very positive, energetic, well-practiced and ready to take on the opponent in the first match," the 54-year-old said.From tomorrow I think I will understand as the chief coach where does my unit stands exactly and how do we start working on ourselves as a team."
Aiming to register a victory on the opening day, Indian captain Sardar said: "First match is always important for any team. We want to start our campaign with a win and the match will also give us an opportunity to examine our strength and weaknesses."Korean team is quite strong and always rated among the best teams in Asia. They have stunned us on few occasions in the past and we are not taking any chance to take the match lightly."India have won the Cup five times and they will face a big test when they play two-time defending champions Australia.For the tournament, India have recalled young strikers Mandeep Singh and Satbir singh and they will join Ramandeep Singh, S. V. Sunil, Akashdeep Singh and Nikkin Thimmaiah in the attack.
The midfield will be marshalled by skipper Sardar, who needs support from returning Chinglensana Singh, who had an impressive outing for Dabang Mumbai in the Hockey India League (HIL) 2015. Manpreet Singh, Dharamvir Singh and S. K. Uthappa are other link-men in the team.Star goalkeeper P.R. Sreejesh has been retained as the vice-captain and will be the senior custodian. Harjot Singh is the second goalkeeper to get a call-up.India have decided to go with two preferred drag-flickers Rupinder Pal Singh and V.R. Raghunath who also have defensive duties along with seasoned Gurbaj Singh and youngsters Birendra Lakra and Kothajit Singh.The chief coach is optimistic of his wards giving tough challenges to the opponents."This is a very capable team and as a unit they can give a tough time to the opponents on any given day," van Ass said.