The five-time Sultan Azlan Shah Cup winners India are in Ipoh again; but with the London Olympics just two months away, the blue pitch still a distraction and the yellow ball not yet obeying the stick, the tournament assumes much greater significance for Michael Nobbs' squad.
India made it back into the Olympics after missing the 2008 Games in Beijing – the first time Indian hockey suffered such an injury. And now when that feeling of comeback has sunk in, there are problems of an entirely unexpected nature in way of India's hopes of a top-six finish in London – the blue pitch and yellow ball.
Malaysia, who unfortunately will not be part of the 12-team event at the London Olympics, have laid out a blue pitch, exactly like the one at the Riverbank Arena – the venue for the Olympics hockey event. But to the hosts' utter disbelief, all but they themselves will use it for their Olympics preparation when the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup kicks off on Thursday.
Blue pitch and five Olympic opponents - India hockey team couldn't have asked for better practice before the Games.
Other than the hosts, Great Britain, Korea, New Zealand, Pakistan, Argentina and India – all of whom are part of the Olympics – will feature in this year's edition in Ipoh. And these teams couldn't have asked for a better practice than competing against each other – on the blue pitch, playing with a yellow ball.
Ranked only higher than Malaysia (13th), India – ranked 10th – will find it tough against No. 4 Great Britain, who beat them twice during the London Test event. Korea (6th), New Zealand (7th), Pakistan (8th) and Argentina (9th) all enjoy a better FIH ranking than India. However, India will definitely want to improve from their sixth-place finish in 2011 after being crowned champions in 1985, 1991, 1995, 2009 and 2010 (jointly with Korea).
India admittedly faced problems on the blue pitch when they played the Olympics test event earlier this month against Australia, Great Britain and Germany. Though the eight-time Olympic gold medallists did show signs of improvement, they lost all their matches in the event having issues with the blue pitch, something India's star striker Sandeep Singh has admitted.
"Playing there [in London] was quite different. For us, the test event was our first ever outing on a blue turf. Initially establishing eye contact on the ball was not simple. The surface is bumpy and ball trapping was difficult," Sandeep had said on his return.
India's defence will again be put to test after being exposed by the likes of Australians and Germans in London. Sandeep, VS Raghunath and Rupinderpal Singh have come up as good drag-flickers than defenders. It has cost India heavily for some time now against bigger, better teams – who take advantage of even the slightest of mistakes and openings.
Team coach Nobbs has said that he would use the tournament as preparation for the Olympics and a chance to give all the players "a chance to secure a berth in the Olympic squad."
"We'll play to win, but the focus will be on the Olympics. With only 16 places in the Olympic squad, I want to give everyone a chance to secure a berth in the Olympic squad," Nobbs said.
Of India's six opponents, New Zealand and Korea are in the same group as India's in the Olympics, which will give all three teams a fair idea of what to expect from each other in the quadrennial event.
India open their Azlan Shan campaign against New Zealand on Thursday.
May 24: New Zealand vs India, 1535 IST
May 25: Korea vs India, 1735 IST
May 27: Great Britain vs India, 1735 IST
May 28: India vs Malaysia 1735 IST
May 30: Argentina vs India, 1335 IST
May 31: Pakistan vs India, 1535 MST
June 3: Playoffs
Goalkeepers: Bharat Chetri (capt) and Sreejesh PR.
Defenders: Sandeep Singh, VR Raghunath and Rupinderpal Singh.
Midfielders: Birendra Lakra, Sardar Singh (vice capt), Manpreet Singh, Gurbaj Singh and Kothajit Singh Khadangbam.
Forwards: SV Sunil, Dharamvir Singh, Sarvanjit Singh, Yuvraj Walmiki, Shivendra Singh, Danish Mujtaba, SK Uthappa and Tushar Khandker.