World famous international invitational competition begins this Saturday
The 26th edition of the revered Sultan Azlan Shah Cup international invitational competition gets underway in Ipoh, Malaysia this weekend with six men’s nations fighting for the chance lift the trophy.
With title holders Australia, India, Great Britain and New Zealand all placed inside the top ten of the FIH Hero World Rankings and fellow competitors Malaysia and Japan both being recent winners of Hockey World League Round 2 events, the competition at the Sultan Azlan Shah Stadium is certain to be fierce.
Australia’s Kookaburras (FIH Hero World Ranking: 2) claimed a record ninth Sultan Azlan Shah title in 2016, and will be seen by many as favourites once again. Although the squad selected by head coach Colin Batch has seen an injection of new talent, there are still plenty of world class experience on show including midfielder Eddie Ockenden and defender Matthew Swann. However, legendary defender and regular team captain Mark Knowles misses out due to a stress injury in his foot.
“We still believe we’re taking a highly capable team over to contest in the Azlan Shah Cup”, said Batch following Knowles’ withdrawal. ‘We will decide who will captain for the series once we have assembled in Malaysia.”
India (WR: 6) took the silver medal in 2016 and will arrive in Ipoh determined to go one better this time around. Like Australia, the Indian team contains a balance of youth and experience, with captain and ace shot-stopper PR Sreejesh hoping that his talented side can exhibit mental resilience at the Sultan Azlan Shah competition. “We have improved a lot mentally over the past year”, said Sreejesh. “In tough situations, in quarter-finals, we have beaten big teams and moved to semis. We need to show consistent improvement in tough matches and we need to raise the bar and perform well.”
With his sights set firmly on achieving Hockey World Cup 2018 qualification at this summer’s Hockey World League Semi-Final competition in London, Great Britain (WR: 7) head coach Bobby Crutchley has selected a side that features a good sprinkling of new players who will be looking to impress. Established stars such as team captain Barry Middleton, Mark Gleghorne and prolific Scotland striker Alan Forsyth are joined by a host of young talent including England U-21 captain James Gall and Wales international Dan Kyriakides. Regular goalkeeper George Pinner misses the event due to his upcoming marriage to GB women’s team’s Jo Hunter.
New Zealand (WR: 8) head coach Darren Smith has also favoured youth for the event, with the vast majority of the team being under the age of 23. At just 27 years of age, experienced team captain Arun Panchia is now an elder statesman of the Black Sticks squad, with teenagers Sam Lane and Hayden Phillips – playing in his first international competition since his hugely impressive Olympic debut at Rio 2016 – being the youngest members of a team missing injured trio Simon Child, Nick Haig and Brad Read. They suffered a heavy 8-2 defeat at the hands of Malaysia in the first of two warm-up matches against the host nation. However, the Black Sticks were much improved in the second fixture, holding the home favourites to a 3-3 draw.
Malaysia (WR: 14) will fancy their chances of making a big impression on home soil, especially after their recent first place finish at the Hockey World League Round 2 event in Dhaka, Bangladesh where they defeated China in the competition final. Star attacker Faizal Saari missed that competition through injury, but has since returned to action and could play a key role at the as his side bid to win a first Azlan Shah title having finished runner-up on five occasions.
Japan (WR: 16) may be the lowest ranked team in the competition but, like Malaysia, come into this event full of confidence following their brilliant, event-winning performances at the Hockey World League Round 2 tournament in Tacarigua, Trinidad and Tobago. Striker Kenta Tanaka scored nine goals from open play at that event to finish as competition top scorer, ensuring that he is a player to watch in Ipoh. The team will be hoping to continue their fine form as they continue their preparations for the Hockey World League Semi-Final in Johannesburg, South Africa where they will be aiming to book a ticket to the Odisha Hockey Men’s World Cup Bhubaneswar 2018 in India.
The action begins on Saturday 29th April with Great Britain facing India in the competition opener at 16:05 (local time – GMT/UTC +8) before New Zealand and Australia contest an Oceania derby match at 18:05. Host nation Malaysia play Japan in the final match of the day, scheduled for 20:35.
About the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup
The Sultan Azlan Shah Cup has been an annual feature in the FIH calendar since 1998, although it initially started life in 1983 as a biennial event. The event is named after legendary hockey fan and former FIH Executive Board Member HRH Sultan Azlan Shah, the ninth Yang di-Pertuan Agong (King) of Malaysia, who sadly passed away in 2014. Although the man known as “the father of Malaysian Hockey” is no longer with us, both his name and legacy lives on in this ever-entertaining competition.
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