It’s a three-horse race

Favourite again…Jamie Dwyer of Australia with the trophy after winning the 2010 FIH World Cup in New Delhi. The Australians are hoping to give their coach, the celebrated Ric Charlesworth, a parting gift by retaining the title in The Hague.-PTI

Going by their sheer planning, execution and commitment, Australia, the defending champion, and two-time winners, Germany and the Netherlands, will be the front-runners for the title this time. By Y. B. Sarangi.

Pakistan, which conceptualised the World Cup, presented the world a well-crafted and glittering trophy and won the title for the maximum number of times (4: 1971, ’78, ’82 and ’94), will miss the 13th edition of hockey’s showpiece event. It is for the first time in its 43-year-old history that the World Cup will be staged without Pakistan in the fray.

However, life will go on as usual in the southern Dutch city, The Hague, even without Pakistan (ranked No. 8 in the world), which is the only country in the top 10 to miss out on a berth in the 12-team event.

There is no doubt that for their sheer planning, execution and commitment, Australia, the defending champion, and two-time winners, Germany and the Netherlands, will be the front-runners for the title in this edition of the World Cup (May 31 to June 15).

Under Ric Charlesworth, Australia had won the 2010 World Cup in New Delhi after 24 years. The Aussies, who have been making continuous efforts to excel, will be hoping to give the legend a parting gift by retaining the title.

Charlesworth has retained 10 members from the World Cup squad of 2010 in the current team. Of them, Jamie Dwyer and Liam De Young will be playing in their fourth World Cup, while captain Mark Knowles, Rob Hammond and Russell Ford will be making their third appearance in the tournament. The top-ranked team has also two exciting talents in Jeremy Hayward and Aran Zalewski.

Germany, whose hopes of winning its third successive World Cup four years ago were dashed by Australia, will be keen as ever to win the title in The Hague. The Olympic champion, coached by Markus Wiese, will be even more eager to prove a point after finishing seventh in the Hockey World League final earlier this year.

The good news for Germany, ranked No. 2 in the world, is that its charismatic midfielder Moritz Furste is recovering fast from a knee injury and is likely to return to the side for the tournament.

The FIH Player of the Year, Tobias Hauke, is a big asset to the side. The accomplished midfielder, who had helped Germany to regain the European title last year, will be central to Wiese’s plans. Besides, the team also has one of the best goalkeepers in the world in Nicolas Jacobi and very talented forwards such as Oskar Deecke and Florian Fuchs.

Wiese has always been very serious about his job and the way he turned the Germans around in the junior World Cup last year after initial glitches is a point to be noted.

The Netherlands, ranked No. 3 in the world, has been in tremendous form, especially in the run-up to the World Cup. Besides, the home team can draw some solace from the fact that it had won the World Cup twice as host — in 1973 and 1998.

The experienced linkman Robert van der Horst and defender-cum-penalty corner expert Wouter Jolie, striker Billy Bakker and goalkeeper Jaap Stockmann will play vital roles in the team coached by Paul van Ass, a super tactician.

No one can discount the presence of the steadily rising Belgium, which has been working to develop its standard of hockey for nearly a decade. The fifth-ranked team, with an eighth-place finish in 1973 as its best, is back in the World Cup, having last played in 2002 where it finished 14th.

Coached by Marc Lammers, Belgium has stunned some of the top sides in the world in recent times and will be gunning for a podium finish this time.

Belgium’s preparation for the mega event was hampered by the Euro Hockey League, in which most of its players took part for six weeks. Lammers had to make the best use of the available time to rejuvenate his players for the tough assignment.

Nevertheless, being one of the youngest sides in the competition with an average age of 22-and-a-half years, Belgium, which finished fifth at the last Olympics, should be able to withstand the pressures of the World Cup. Experienced midfielders John-John Dohmen and Felix Denayare and prominent strikers Thomas Briels and Tom Boon will be the key for the team in The Hague.

England, the 1986 silver medal winner and ranked No. 4 in the world, will be eyeing a medal in The Hague after having finished fourth four years ago. Since the London Olympics, the team has undergone a lot of changes and in the run-up to the World Cup the players have had plenty of match practice in the form of domestic and international assignments.

Coach Bobby Crutchley, who has been at the helm for just over 18 months, is happy that some players are recovering well from injuries. He is confident of the team’s defence and recognises the need to be more clinical at the ‘sharp end.’

Crutchley will mainly rely on the seasoned Barry Middleton, who shuffles between midfield and the forward line, linkman-cum-penalty corner specialist Ashley Jackson, efficient goalkeeper George Pinner and defender Iain Lewers to achieve a good result.

However, both Crutchley and Lammers rate Spain, ranked No. 10, very high even though the two-time silver medallist and the 2006 bronze medallist has not made an impact in recent times. Spain, which was sixth in the 2012 Olympics, is studded with some reputed players such as brothers Ramon and David Alegre and Eduard Tubau and will hope to make an impact this time.

World No. 6 New Zealand is capable of springing some surprises. The under-prepared team — loaded with experienced campaigners such as midfielder Phil Burrows, defender Dean Couzins and forward Simon Child — had made an impact early this year by finishing runner-up in the Hockey World League final. The team is much more focused and is determined to improve upon its ninth-place finish in New Delhi four years ago.

Seventh-ranked Korea looks to be the best among the three Asian teams. A string of fine results, including the Asian Championship title and the Champions Challenge 1 crown, makes the side, coached by Shin Seok-Kyo, the dark horse of the competition.

Korea, which had finished sixth in 2006, could rely on its highly experienced players, including drag-flicker Jang Jong-Hyun, a three-time Olympian.

Qualifying for the World Cup after a gap of 12 years, Malaysia, ranked No. 13, has risen steadily in the last few months, claiming a bronze in the Champions Challenge by beating New Zealand and bagging a silver medal in the Azlan Shah Cup. Coached by the intense Muhammad Dhaarma Raj, the team has some good players such as the young Firhan Ashari and the skilful striker, Faizal Saari. Malaysia is capable of upsetting the best of teams on its day.