India have been one of the best teams in the past editions of the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup, winning the title five times. India will be gunning for their sixth title when the competition starts Wednesday in Ipoh, Malaysia. Former India captain and coach, Vasudevan Baskaran, believes India can win the title, but will face massive competition from Australia and New Zealand.
The competition is going to be top-class, with seven quality teams -- India, Australia, Pakistan, New Zealand, Japan, Canada and hosts Malaysia -- taking part.
"India can win the Azlan Shah Cup, but they have to get off to a winning note in the competition. India should defeat teams like Pakistan, Japan and Canada, but they will find it tough against Australia and New Zealand. Also, Malaysia, being the hosts, are a strong side as well," Vasudevan Baskaran told International Business Times, India.
However, India have not gone ahead with their best team for the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup. With this tournament being the penultimate competition ahead of the Rio Olympics, India have given rest to some of their key players, including PR Sreejesh and Akashdeep Singh.
Bhaskaran believes India coach Roelant Oltmans will look into this tournament too see who among the fringe players can put their hands up to be called up for the Rio Olympics. India are expected to play their best team in the Champions Trophy 2016 in June, which will be their last major competition ahead of the Rio Olympics.
"This competition (Sultan Azlan Shah) will give Oltmans a huge chance to explore. India last played as a unit in the Hockey World League in Raipur last year, and this is their first major competition in 2016. Azlan Shah will not be about results for Oltmans, who will look for players that he can pick for Rio Olympics," Bhaskaran said.
India are a strong team, with some experienced and established players. But India's performance in the final third has been a major problem. Their forwards have not been able to trap the ball properly which has led to turnovers.
With the forwards not delivering as expected, skipper Sardar Singh, who is India's best player, is always under pressure. Teams have certain plans against Sardar, who is tightly-marked nowadays. Sardar is key to India's fortunes, because when Sardar has an off-day, India, too, fail to shine.
"Sardar is a well-marked man. Opponents know Sardar is an important player for India, and are hence closing down on him quickly. He needs to stop and release the ball quickly to India forwards," Bhaskaran said.
Though India might not have gone with their strongest team, they are expected to come up with their A-game and bulid confidence ahead of the Rio Olympics. It also gives the squad players, who were part of the training camp in Bangalore, a chance to execute Oltams' vision as well.
India start off their campaign against Japan, Wednesday.