Asian Champions Trophy: Favourites India under pressure to reclaim title


Kuantan: Asian Games gold medallists India start as the overwhelming favourites to reclaim the Asian Champions Trophy (ACT) men's hockey tournament featuring continent's top six nations, starting in Kuantan, Malaysia, on Thursday. Winners of the inaugural Asian Champions Trophy at Ordos, China, five years ago, India have since then been indifferent in fielding their best squad for this competition, which suffered from lack of enthusiasm among the continent's hockey elite.

After two editions of the annual events were not conducted in 2014 and 2015; the Asian Champions Trophy got a boost from the International Hockey Federation's (FIH) decision to include it in the qualification system for future Olympics and World Cups. The FIH decision has attracted the top Asian hockey talent to the Malaysian port city of Kuantan, which will have quality action from October 20 to 30.

Fielding their best-available squad that was marred by a spate of injuries, India's billing as the hot favourites could put them under pressure. Twice defending champions Pakistan, who are the best performing team in the Asian Champions Trophy's short history, and former Asian champions South Korea will be eager to pull off a surprise against the higher-ranked opponents.

Indian team coach Roelant Oltmans has implored his side for positive results in this outing. "Our quarterfinal ouster in the Olympics was a disappointment, but it has instilled a belief in the players that they can match the best in the world. Now, Indian hockey fans will be looking for some good results," says Oltmans.

Ranked number six in the world and way ahead of the other teams competing in this tournament, the Indian players are aware that nothing less than the title will be deemed as a positive result.

By virtue of their Asian Games gold medal, India were the only Asian team to feature in the Olympic Games and their preliminary pool victory over eventual Olympic gold medallists Argentina was the spotlight for the PR Sreejesh-led side.

Memory of his penalty stroke-saving deeds of the 2011 Asian Champions Trophy final still fresh, captain Sreejesh is keen to give a present to the Indian hockey supporters, who have kept the belief even in times of despair, such as India's bottom spot in the 12-team Olympic competition in 2012 and the failure to even qualify for the Olympic Games four years earlier.

"Showcase your strike-power" is the message that's gone out to the Indian team from its skipper. After their 1-3 Rio Olympic quarterfinal loss to Belgium, who went on to win a silver medal behind Argentina, India are looking for a winning start to the next Olympic cycle, during which they will again host the World Cup in 2018.

India are eager to prove that injury-caused absence of their playmaker Manpreet Singh and livewire right winger S V Sunil has not blunted their strike-power.

Also missing from the squad is seasoned defender V R Raghunath. Manpreet's absence will see the return of former captain Sardar Singh to the centre-half position, while the experienced Birender Lakra will return from his injury-forced absence to step into Raghunath's position.

Akashdeep Singh and Ramandeep Singh, who were originally rested, were recalled to the squad after Sunil failed to recover from the wrist injury he sustained during the Olympics.

The performance of young strikers Lalit Upadhyay and Affan Yousuf will also be under scrutiny. It was in this year's Sultan Azlan Shah Cup in Malaysia that junior team captain Harmanpreet Singh impressed the coach so much that he got picked for the Olympic squad.

India launch their campaign against Japan on Thursday, while defending champions Pakistan take on hosts Malaysia on the opening day. South Korea and China, the other two participants, get into action on Friday. The feature of the round-robin league competition will be the India-Pakistan encounter on Sunday, where the defending champions will be eager to avenge their loss at the Incheon Asiad title encounter.

The loss in the 2014 Asian Games final at Incheon led to Pakistan's ouster from the Olympic Games lineup for the first time. It was a big blow for Pakistan hockey, soon after they failed to qualify for the 12-team World Cup at The Hague earlier in 2014.

Pakistan's campaign here had a tottering start with captain Mohammad Irfan failing to make it to Kuantan. Reportedly unable to retrieve his passport from another embassy, Irfan was not with the Pakistan team that landed in Malaysia and now he has been left out of the tournament altogether.

Irfan has now been replaced as captain by Fareed Ahmed, the highest capped member of the squad with 207 appearances for Pakistan.

Pakistan has won the Asian Champions Trophy twice after being runners up in the inaugural edition. Pakistan defeated India 5-4 in the final in 2012 and then retained the title in 2013 by prevailing 3-1 over Japan in the title encounter.

In 2013, when India sent their under-21 side, they did not even feature in the final. India have one gold and one silver medal, beside the fifth-place in 2013. Hosts Malaysia have consistently got the bronze medal in all three editions.