Preview: Indian hockey's World Cup hopes hinge on Asia Cup triumph
India have never missed out on a World Cup and winning the Asia Cup is their last chance to qualify for the 2014 edition.
If missing the 2008 Olympics was ignominious, it will be equally discomfiting if India were to be left out of the 2014 World Cup. The 1975 world champions have never missed out on World Cup qualification and they would like to keep that 42-year record intact. The only way to achieve that now is by winning the Asia Cup, but it won't be easy.
The two-time Asian champions squandered the earlier opportunity to book a World Cup ticket. The FIH Hockey World League semi-finals in Rotterdam doubled up as World Cup qualifiers, but India failed to secure a top-three finish and now face a do-or-die situation in Malaysia.
The 9th men's Asia Cup, set to begin in Ipoh on Saturday, offers its winners an automatic World Cup qualification as continental champions. But India's challengers here are as fierce as archrivals Pakistan, quicksilver South Koreans and the lively Malaysians - besides hockey minnows Japan, Chinese-Taipei, Bangladesh and Oman.
India's preparations began on a slippery Bangalore pitch that put key Indian strikers SV Sunil and Akashdeep Singh out of the equation, further depleting India's strike force that was already missing Danish Mujtaba and Gurwinder Singh Chandi. That further hardened the task of Hockey India's young selection panel comprising Arjuna Halappa and Gagan Ajit Singh.
Loss of those injured turned into gain for three youngsters. Strikers Ramandeep Singh and Nikin Thimmaiah will join Nithin Thimmaiah, Mandeep Singh and Malak Singh in a virtually untested forward line - while drag-flicker Amit Rohidas will provide breathers to VR Raghunath, Rupinder Pal Singh, Kothajit Singh, Birendra Lakra and Gurmail Singh in the defence that has always been a worry for India.
Another bit of concern is the fitness of captain Sardar Singh, who is down with fever and may not be 100 percent for the game against Oman. Chief coach Roelant Oltmans, who has taken over the team's command from Michael Nobbs, may be tempted to rest his top player to be at his best in the tough second match against South Korea.
Oltmans - who is also Hockey India's High Performance Director - will lead India's overhauled coaching setup in the dug out, alongside national coach MK Kaushik and goalkeeping coach Dave Staniforth. It will be interesting to see what style India have adopted since it will be the Dutchman's first assignment after Nobbs left.
"I'll be responsible for the team's performance," Oltmans said before the team's departure. "But at the same time I am confident as well," he added.
Pakistan, too, will come to the tournament hungry for success.
Like India, their neighbours also haven't ever missed out on a World Cup berth. Well aware of that, the four-time World Champions will be eyeing their fourth Asia Cup title. Their three previous trophies came in 1982, '85 and '89. On all three occasions, they beat India in the final.
South Korea is the only Asian team to have qualified for the World Cup.
The South Koreans got the monkey off their back after Argentina won the Pan American continental championship, which lifted South Korea from among the first reserves to become the eighth team to qualify for the premier event. That will allow the South Koreans freedom to play aggressive hockey and pose an added threat to India and Pakistan's title hopes.
And it will be wrong to take the hosts lightly either.
Malaysia surprised everyone by finishing runners-up in the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup earlier this year, where they lost to Australia in the final. The Malaysians always pick their game up with the crowd behind them, and it will be no different this time, which is why they remain a serious danger.
Getting through the league phase shouldn't be much of a problem for the top four teams in the tournament. From Pool A, Pakistan and Malaysia are expected to ease their way past Japan and Chinese Taipei. And from Pool B, India and South Korea should easily leave Bangladesh and Oman behind to fight for the fifth to eighth positions.
India will open their campaign in the first match of the tournament against Oman on Saturday, followed by matches against South Korea on August 26 and Bangladesh on August 28. The semi-finals will be played on August 30 and the final on September 1.