Indian hockey's Rio preparations face Pakistan test
India's 3-1 victory over Canada has placed them third in the round-robin league standings with six points from three outings, while Pakistan have three points from as many matches. (Getty Images)
Ipoh, Malaysia: With medal hopes at stake, a scrappy India will have to lift their game by leaps and bounds when they take on sub-continental rivals Pakistan in the 25th Sultan Azlan Shah Cup hockey tournament in Ipoh, Malaysia, in what promises to be an intense encounter.
Five-time winners of the tournament, India were bronze medalists last year and are eager to stay in medal contention.
But the Sardar Singh-led side, which features several youngsters, will have to raise its game by many fold after surviving a torrid time against Canada on Sunday.
India's 3-1 victory over Canada has placed them third in the round-robin league standings with six points from three outings, while Pakistan have three points from as many matches. Pakistan's lone win came against Canada by a similar margin.
World champions Australia are leading the standings with a maximum nine points from three consecutive victories, while defending champions New Zealand are on eight points from four matches.
The intense hockey rivalry between the two teams has always attracted immense interest. Despite slumping from their position as top hockey nations, an India-Pakistan encounter never fails to be a showstopper at any tournament.
The silver jubilee edition of the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup will see the spotlight focused on the sub-continental encounter even as World No 1 Australia take on title holders New Zealand in another fixture the same day.
"The whole of India is waiting for the next game, but I keep telling the boys that this is just another game," said India's chief coach Roelant Oltmans.
"We should maintain focus on our game just like in any other match. We have a tough schedule starting with the match against Pakistan," said the Dutchman.
Pakistan coach Khwaja Junaid, a former international, wants his players to display their skills and control the emotions when they play India on Tuesday.
"The match against India will be a turnover game," said Junaid.
"The team that manages to defend the counter-attacks better will have an edge. We are now trying to rebuild our squad. What is important is that we follow our game-strategy, play in a structure and show unity in the field," he said.
Junaid said that Pakistan had brought eight young players from the squad that recently won the South Asian Games gold medal defeating India in the final.
India did not field their main squad in the South Asian Games. Their top players were then playing in the cash-rich Hockey India League and were allowed to skip the tournament.
The last match in a top-notch event featuring full-strength Indian and Pakistani sides was in the Hockey World League Semifinals in Antwerp last year, which ended in a 2-2 draw.
India went on to advance to the knock-out round of that tournament, while Pakistan's hopes of securing qualification for the Olympic Games were dashed after they lost to Ireland.
The previous two encounters were the bronze-medal match of the 2014 Champions Trophy in Bhubaneswar and the final of the Incheon Asian Games a few months earlier.
In Incheon, India's victory in the penalty shootout not only secured them the Asian Games gold medal after a gap of 16 years, but also secured a direct qualification to the Rio Olympics.
After other qualification events ended, India remained the only Asian team in the Olympic line-up.
Pakistan, also former Olympic champions, will be missing from the quadrennial extravaganza for the first time since their maiden appearance in 1948.
Coming after their failure to qualify for the 2014 World Cup at The Hague, it has been a major blow to Pakistan's hockey.
The next encounter between these sub-continental sides was the bronze-medal game of the 2014 Champions Trophy at Bhubaneswar, where some obscene gestures during on-field celebrations by the victorious Pakistani team lead to a few suspensions and India's vehement protests to the International Hockey Federation.
Both teams want to put all that in the background on Tuesday and raise their level for a fine exhibition of attractive hockey.
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