New Delhi: Sardar Singh has become the face of Indian hockey in the last five years, but India will learn to live without their regular skipper, who has been rested for the 22nd Sultan Azlan Shah Cup in Ipoh, Malaysia, where India start their campaign against world No. 2 Australia on Saturday.
Danish Mujataba is leading a new-look squad that is full of youngsters and is without star defender VR Raghunath and right winger SV Sunil, who, like Sardar, have also been given a well-deserved break after being on the road for four months.
India, the five-time Sultan Azlan Shah Cup winners, are taking this tournament as an opportunity to ear-mark youngsters who can form the core of the squad for the Junior World Cup to be played in India later this year.
India arrived early in Ipoh to get used to the hot Malaysian weather before they take on the mighty Australians in their opener. Coach Michael Nobbs said it has helped since the boys were coming out of the winter in India. "Needed to come a couple of days earlier to acclimatise as we are coming from our winter to their hot weather, and it's hot and humid, so its taking a while to get used to it," Nobbs told IBNLive.com from Malaysia.
While making it clear that India are taking this tournament as a window to the Junior World Cup, the India coach also explained the reason to rest the seniors. "Our main goal is to prepare our juniors for the World Cup in Delhi later this year. Secondary and also important is to rest our senior players as we have had an extremely hard season from the beginning of November last year until now, and our senior players are basically exhausted and require a break. We have relied heavily on them and they have played very well, but now a short break is required.
"This necessitates us to field the youngest team at this tournament and to give our young players exposure against tough international teams in preparation for the Junior World Cup," Nobbs, who is being accompanied by India's junior men's team coach Baljit Singh Saini, said.
Australia, coached by Ric Charlesworth, have won the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup six times - the most by any team in the tournament's history. The Kookaburras - as they are popularly known - have fielded a mixed squad that includes five uncapped players. The Australian touring party includes just three players from the London Olympics squad, which clearly suggests Australia too are using this tournament to bring youngsters in the fold with an eye on the Junior World Cup.
The tournament, which is played in a round-robin format, begins with the match between New Zealand and Pakistan on Saturday, which will be followed by India taking on Australia and hosts Malaysia battling Korea.
9 March - 1535 (IST) - Australia v India
10 March - 1535 (IST) - Korea v India
12 March - 1535 (IST) - India v Pakistan
14 March - 1535 (IST) - New Zealand v India
16 March - 1735 (IST) - Malaysia v India