India under pressure to reclaim ACT hockey title

Fielding its best-available squad that was marred by a spate of injuries, India's billing as the hot favourites could put them under pressure.

P. R. Sreejesh will lead India in the Asian Champions Trophy.   -  Hockey India

Asian Games gold medalists India starts as the overwhelming favourites to reclaim the Asian Champions Trophy (ACT) men's hockey tournament featuring continent's top six nations, starting here on Thursday. Winners of the inaugural Asian Champions Trophy at Ordos five years ago, India has since then been indifferent in fielding its best squad for this competition, which suffered from lack of enthusiasm among the continent's hockey elite.

After two editions of the annual event was 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 its 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 is 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," said Oltmans.

Ranked No. 6 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 its Asian Games gold medal, India was the only Asian team to feature in the Olympic Games and its preliminary pool victory over eventual Olympic gold medalists Argentina was the spotlight for P. R. 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 its 1-3 Rio Olympic quarterfinal loss to Belgium, who went on to win a silver medal behind Argentina, India is looking for a winning start to the next Olympic cycle, during which it will again host the World Cup in 2018.

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