The 27th edition of the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup gets underway in Ipoh, Malaysia from March 3 to March 10.
Six world class teams will battle for honours in the worlds longest runn Ng invitational tournament that was inaugurated in 1983.
The trophy, named after the late Sultan Azlan Shah, a prime mover for Hockey in Malaysia and Asia will see the participation of current world number one ranked team Australia, 2016 Rio Olympic Gold medallists Argentina, England, Asia Cup champions India, debutants Ireland and Malaysia.
There is no doubt that Australia and Argentina are early favourites to make the final on March 10, expecting to top the standings after the end of the league matches in March 9.
But playing two matches consecutively and a one day break in between under the humid co Dorian’s could severely test the physical and mental toughness of the teams.
What more with the Commonwealth Games hardly a month away in Gold Coast, trans like Australia, England, India and Malaysia will be wary of player picking up injuries that will rule them out of Gold Coast.
Though Great Britain are the defending champions, it will be England who will be playing and there are only four changes in the team from last year that defeated Australia in the final.
Hence coach Bobby Crutchley is confident his charges have what it takes to finish on the podium.
“ We have made four changes to the side that played last year and we expect a tougher tournament with the presence of Argentina and Australia, “ said Crutchley.
“ We have beaten Australia before and we will go on the field with the same kind of confidence. They (Australians) are a great side and we have a lot of respect for them.”
The Australians have won the most number of titles at the Azlan Shah Cup with a total of nine so far.
And coach Colin Batch has a team of experienced and talented youngsters to mount a serious challenge this time around,
“There are a lot of new faces in the team, said Colin.
“ We have made nine changes to the team that played last year.
“ We see the SAS Cup as an excellent opportunity to start the season with the Commonwealth Games, Champions Trophy and World Cup coming along the way..”
India have brought a team without any top ranked penalty corner flicker as the left Rupinderpal Singh and Hermanpreet Singh back home.
Still with the evergreen Sardar Singh leading the team, coach Sjoerd Marijne believes his boys will be able to match the more established teams.
“ Just like the New Zealand Tour where four players made their International debut, the SAS Cup is a great opportunity for these youngsters to get international exposure against top teams,@ he contended,
“ This tournament is extremely important for the players who are going because it is another opportunity for them to experience high level competition “
Reigning Olympic champions Argentina win win the trophy in 2007 and hoping the repeat the feat 11 years on despite losing in the final of the 2012 edition.
This tournament serves as a major test for newly appointed coach Rolando Rivero.
“Coming into this tournament as Olympic Champions does not put any pressure on us., “ said Rivero.
“ We are getting used to the surroundings and weather conditions.
“We played two friendly matches against the Malaysian team and it was a good opportunity.
“The results don’t matter much”
Debutants Ireland are no pushover having finished third in the European Championships.
Though without the services of some key players due to their commitments with clubs in the European League, the 10th world ranked team are confident they will be able to defy the odds.
Craig Fulton said that despite being the first time they were playing in the tournament, playing the world top teams was like a dream come true.
“We expect a good game against the Malaysians who are a very strong side.
“For the last three years we have been knocking on the door of the SAS Cup and now that we are here we intend to play to our confidence level.
“Our aim is to get as much exposure from this experience as we are looking towards a tough calender leading to the World Cup .
“I suppose all the teams here have the same outlook.
“We will just take one match at a time and gauge our performance.
“Although we are ranked 10 in the world, our first match against Malaysia (ranked 12) is important.
“The importance of rankings gets down to our performance on the field on that day. And we hope to make a good start.”
Hosts Malaysia have a team minus for players who were ruled out through injuries.
But the core of the team has been kept together since the middle of 2016 and the players have enough exposure to create an impact.
However they have set a modest target for themselves as they want to finish better then what they did last year, which was a fourth place finish.
Coach Stephen van Huizen is expected to continue experimenting ahead of the Commonwealth Games, Asian Games leading up to the World Cup.
“ We have been in training since December for the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup, said Stephen.
“ There here is no doubt we will miss the services of Sukri Abdul Mutalib due to injury and three other key players but I have full confidence in this team in our preparation for a tough calender leading up to the World Cup later this year.
“ Our aim is to do better than last year.
“ In the absence of veteran and most experienced goalkeeper S. Kumar, I am confident Hafizuddin Othman and Hairi Abdul Rahman will gain from this experience. “
So the stage is set for an intriguing competition and most teams who will feature in the Commonwealth Games are expected to keep their cards close to their chest and not reveal much.