A young Indian team enters the 9th Asia Cup shouldering the burden of winning nothing less than a trophy in Ipoh, which will bring with it the equally important reward of qualification in the 2014 FIH World Cup. But battling injuries to big players and with a new coaching set-up, it will be a test of character for Sardar Singh and his boys, and former India captain Pargat Singh concurs.
Talking to IBNLive.com about India's prospects, Pargat said Indian hockey was going through a difficult phase and the players will have to play out of their skins against quality teams like South Korea, Pakistan and Malaysia. "Indian hockey is going through a tough phase. I am not too optimistic, but anything can happen [at the Asia Cup]," the iconic defender said.
India will be without Gurvinder Singh Chandi, SV Sunil, Danish Mujtaba and Akashdeep Singh. The four key players are out injured, which seriously dents India's chances in Malaysia, confirming Pargat's worries.
When asked if India have picked the right squad, Pargat said, "The selectors can answer this question better since they have picked the team. All I can say is that in light of injuries to established players, they must have picked the squad from among the best available players."
Since the sacking of Michael Nobbs, Hockey India's High Performance Director Roelant Oltmans has been asked to fill in as chief coach until a replacement is named. MK Kaushik will be beside Oltmans in the dug out as national coach, with newly appointment goalkeeping coach Dave Staniforth beside him.
Speaking specifically about Staniforth, who has joined the squad just a week ago, Pargat said we need to give him time to prove himself. "One tournament is too short a time to reflect. We need to give him time. All he can do is spot the shortcomings in Malaysia and work on them in the long run."
South Korea, says Pargat, will be a very dangerous side now after having qualified for the World Cup, and India will have to be extra careful against the South Koreans. "There is no question of taking them lightly, especially now that they have booked a place in the World Cup. Once the pressure is off a team, it plays freely and aggressively. They will come out with an attacking frame of mind even against top teams like India and Pakistan."
India - who are in Pool B alongside South Korea, Oman and Bangladesh - will open the tournament when they face Oman on Saturday. Pakistan, hosts Malaysia, Japan and Chinese Taipei are in Pool A.
India have won the Asia Cup twice before in 2003 and 2007, while finishing runners-up on four occasions and winning bronze once. Both Pakistan and South Korea have won the trophy three times.