India face tough task in Azlan Shah

<img border='0' align='left' title=' ' src=' ' class='caption'> India have a daunting task at hand when they open their campaign in the Azlan Shah hockey tournament on Thursday.

Updated: February 25, 2007 10:51 IST
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Kuala Lumpur:

India have a daunting task at hand when they open their campaign in the Azlan Shah hockey tournament on Thursday. Olympic champions Australia are starting as firm favourites to defend their title at the National Hockey Stadium at Bukit Jalil. India, who finished last in the previous edition, will take on South Africa in their first outing knowing fully well that their rivals are looking for revenge for their last two defeats. Looking for revenge It was here in the first edition of the Champions Challenge final that they were beaten in 2001 and more recently at Athens. It was in the latter game where India bounced back after trailing by two first half goals to pump in four in the second session to register a creditable win. For thrice winners India, the team, which they have fielded here, can best be described as a mixed bag. The team was churned out in the absence of the juniors who travel to Bilbao, Spain, for an Under-21 four-nation tournament, enroute to Rotterdam for the defence of their World Cup title next month. The eleven-day prestigious event here will be played on a round-robin format amongst Australia, Pakistan, India, South Korea, New Zealand, South Africa and hosts Malaysia with the final slated for June 5. Depending on newcomers India have quite a few newcomers, who stood out in the highly successful inaugural Premier Hockey League at Hyderabad early this year. The dampener however, was the injuries to regular midfielders Viren Rasquinha and Vikram Pillay, besides veteran striker Samir Dad who was hoping for a comeback. Even though Dilip Tirkey was back after a long injury layoff, the captain would be hoping that the other deep defenders – the youthful Harpal Singh and Muthuselvan – would be as sturdy, while the locally popular 'big boy' Len Aiyappa would execute the penalty corner drag-flicks. The midfield appears to be vulnerable in the absence of Rasquinha and Pillay. Focus on Ignace, Avtar It will have to be an overtime duty for armyman Ignace Tirkey and Bimal Lakra with unflinching support from rookies Avtar Singh and Jaswinder. The coaches Rajinder Singh (Jr) and Narinder Pal Singh may even play Arjun Halappa in the right midfield slot to blunt rival onslaughts. Deepak Thakur will hold the key to the India front line and if his forays have the precision and calibration with Indian Oil colleague Prabhjot Singh and Airlines forward Sandeep Michael, this trio could well be the toast of the large Indian support base here. Another dark horse was striker Suresh Kumar of the Services who impressed with his stickwork skills and 'on the run' marksmanship during the camps at Delhi and Hyderabad. Training camp The Australians coached by Barry Dancer congregated for the first time at Perth since their title win at the Olympics last August, for an intensive training camp. The majority of the Athens squad were joined by Michael Boyce, Aaron Hopkins, Stephen Lambert and Craig Victory. Australia had opted out of the Champions Trophy at Lahore last December due to security reasons. The team will be spearheaded by Travis Brooks, man of the match in the 2004 final here, who slammed two goals in the summit clash against Pakistan. (PTI)

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