Five ranking spots and a constantly-widening gulf of class separates India from the next-best team at the Asian Champions Trophy, which gets underway in the Malaysian city of Kuantan on Thursday.
India, placed sixth in the world, are the only Asian team to feature in the top 10 of the world rankings. South Korea are second-best at 11th, followed by Pakistan (13). Going purely by rankings and recent performances, anything less than a gold medal will be seen as a failure for the Asian Games champions.
India’s resurgence has coincided with a collective fall in standards of other Asian teams, a fact underlined when none of the other countries managed to qualify for the Rio Olympics. South Korea have perennially been in a rebuilding phase while lack of funds and internal problems in their federation have contributed to to Pakistan’s rapid slide.
The impact of this became apparent when the Asian Hockey Federation decided to scrap the 2014 and 2015 editions of the Asian Champions Trophy owing to a lack of interest by other countries. However, the International Hockey Federation’s decision to make this an Olympic and World Cup qualifying tournament has given a new lease of life to the tournament. Despite their recent struggles, Pakistan are the most successful side in the tournament’s brief history, winning two out of the three editions. For India to reclaim the title they won in 2011, they will have to end Pakistan’s stranglehold on it. Roelant Oltmans’ side will be eager to prove that the absence of playmaker Manpreet Singh and winger SV Sunil due to injuries has not blunted their strike power. Also missing from the squad is seasoned defender VR Raghunath.
Manpreet’s absence will see the return of former captain Sardar Singh to the centre-half postion, while the experienced Birendra 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.
India launch their campaign against Japan, while defending champions Pakistan face hosts Malaysia. South Korea and China, the other two participants, get into action on Friday. The highlight of the round robin league competition will be the India-Pakistan encounter on Sunday. Coach Oltmans has implored his side for positive results.