New Delhi: Playing in Ipoh but focus on the Junior World Cup in New Delhi - that seems to be how the six participants in this 22nd Sultan Azlan Shah Cup are approaching the tournament, having arrived with an objective to give international exposure to their most talented youngsters.
World No. 2 Australia, defending champions New Zealand and Asian Games gold-medallist Pakistan form the top three forces in the tournament that will also witness how much India have benefited from the Hockey India League (HIL) - with Korea and hosts Malaysia completing the six-team line-up.
But the common goal that all these teams share is to blood youngsters before the all-important Junior World Cup to be hosted by India later this year.
New Zealand (ranked 6th), who won the tournament in 2012, chose to fly in a young outfit - partly to give their upcoming stars a taste of the international arena and partly after some of their key players were allowed to fulfil their commitments in Europe. They will be led by the experienced Dean Couzins, with the Australian Colin Batch as the chief coach.
Australia have lifted the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup six times - the most by any team in the tournament's history. The Kookaburras - as they are popularly known - have fielded a mixed squad that includes five uncapped players. The touring party includes just three players from the London Olympics squad, which clearly suggests Australia are using this tournament to bring youngsters in the fold.
Pakistan (ranked 5th) too have rested veterans Waseem Ahmed, Shakeel Abbasi, Rizwan Ahmed and Rashid Mahmood; and coach Hanif Khan minced no words while explaining what they hope to achieve from this. "We wanted to test new boys by giving rest to some senior players," he said.
As far as the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup is concerned, world No. 11 India are the second most successful team behind Australia - having lifted the trophy five times. They arrived well in advance to get acclimatised to the hot Malaysian weather before taking on Australia in their first match. Like other teams, coach Michael Nobbs has also given his key players like Sardar Singh and VR Raghunath a well-deserved break, which also gave him an opportunity to field the young guns that emerged from the HIL.
"Needed to come a couple of days earlier to acclimatise as we are coming from our winter to their hot weather, and it's hot and humid, so its taking a while to get used to it. Our main goal is to prepare our juniors for the World Cup in Delhi later this year," Nobbs told IBNLive.com from Ipoh.
Eighth-ranked Korea, who lost to Pakistan in the 2010 Asian Games final but won the last Asia Cup, are also in the rebuilding phase as they use this opportunity as a window to climb up the rankings and identify the young legs that can serve them in the future.
Hosts Malaysia enter the tournament under their South African coach Paul Revington as the lowest ranked (13th) team. They failed to qualify for the 2012 Olympics in London but will like to put that behind with a decent show in front of the home crowd.
9 March - 1335 (IST) - New Zealand v Pakistan (Pool)
9 March - 1535 (IST) - Australia v India (Pool)
9 March - 1735 (IST) - Malaysia v Korea (Pool)
10 March - 1335 (IST) - Australia v Pakistan (Pool)
10 March - 1535 (IST) - Korea v India (Pool)
10 March - 1735 (IST) - Malaysia v New Zealand (Pool)
12 March - 1335 (IST) - Korea v New Zealand (Pool)
12 March - 1535 (IST) - India v Pakistan (Pool)
12 March - 1735 (IST) - Malaysia v Australia (Pool)
14 March - 1335 (IST) - Australia v Korea (Pool)
14 March - 1535 (IST) - New Zealand v India (Pool)
14 March - 1735 (IST) - Malaysia v Pakistan (Pool)
16 March - 1335 (IST) - Korea v Pakistan (Pool)
16 March - 1535 (IST) - Australia v New Zealand (Pool)
16 March - 1735 (IST) - Malaysia v India (Pool)
17 March - 1305 (IST) - 5th Place v 6th Place (Placing)
17 March - 1535 (IST) - 3rd Place v 4th Place (Placing)
17 March - 1805 (IST) - 1st Place v 2nd Place (Placing)
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