India Under Pressure to Reclaim Asian Champions Trophy Hockey Title
Winners of the inaugural Asian Champions Trophy at Ordos five years ago, India have since then been indifferent in fielding their best squad for this competition, which suffered from lack of enthusiasm among the continent's hockey elite
Asian Games gold medalists India start as the overwhelming favourites to reclaim the Asian Champions Trophy (ACT) men's hockey tournament featuring continent's top six nations, starting in Kuantan on Thursday.
Winners of the inaugural Asian Champions Trophy at Ordos five years ago, India have since then been indifferent in fielding their best squad for this competition, which suffered from lack of enthusiasm among the continent's hockey elite.
After two editions of the annual event were not conducted in 2014 and 2015, the Asian Champions Trophy got a boost from the International Hockey Federation's (FIH) decision to include it in the qualification system for future Olympics and World Cups.
The FIH decision has attracted the top Asian hockey talent to the Malaysian post city of Kuantan which will quality action from October 20 to 30.
Fielding their best-available squad that was marred by a spate of injuries, India's billing as the hot favourites could put them under pressure.
Twice defending champions Pakistan, who are the best performing team in the Asian Champions Trophy's short history, and former Asian champions South Korea will be eager to pull off a surprise against the higher-ranked opponents.
Indian team coach Roelant Oltmans has implored his side for positive results in this outing.
"Our quarterfinal ouster in the Olympics was a disappointment, but it has instilled a belief in the players that they can match the best in the world. Now, Indian hockey fans will be looking for some good results," says Oltmans.
Ranked number six in the world and way ahead of the other teams competing in this tournament, the Indian players are aware that nothing less than the title will be deemed as a positive result.
By virtue of their Asian Games gold medal, India were the only Asian team to feature in the Olympic Games and their preliminary pool victory over eventual Olympic gold medalists Argentina was the spotlight for PR Sreejesh-led side.
Memory of his penalty stroke-saving deeds of the 2011 Asian Champions Trophy final still fresh, captain Sreejesh is keen to give a thanksgiving present to the Indian hockey supporters who have kept the belief even in times of despair such as India's bottom spot in the 12-team Olympic competition in 2012 and the failure to even qualify for the Olympic Games four years earlier.
"Showcase your strike-power" is the message that's gone out to the Indian team from its skipper.
After their 1-3 Rio Olympic quarterfinal loss to Belgium, who went on to win a silver medal behind Argentina, India are looking for a winning start to the next Olympic cycle, during which they will again host the World Cup in 2018.