By James Gough
It looks like the vision of HRH Sultan Azlan Shah to make Ipoh the Hockey Hub of Asia is fast becoming a reality judging by the three prestigious and noteworthy events of the recently concluded 21st Sultan Azlan Shah Cup, Men’s International Hockey Tournament. Deemed a huge success, especially by those in the Hockey fraternity, the three events held at one location enabled participants to view a top class international competition simultaneously.
What started as an initiative to expose Malaysia’s hockey players to challenging experiences is beginning to bear fruit
Held over a two week period during the first term school holidays from May 24 to June 3 the tournament programme included the international level Sultan Azlan Shah Cup held at Stadium Azlan Shah where seven teams participated, six of them ranked in the top 10 category with Malaysia which was ranked 13.
Concurrently, the National Indoor Hockey Tournament since named the Raja Ashman Shah Cup, held at at Stadium Indera Mulia, saw 22 teams from throughout the country participating in the event and the AHF-MHC Technical Officials course attended by 35 participants from 14 Asian countries.
The first Sultan Azlan Shah Cup was in played in 1983 in Kuala Lumpur. It was a biennial competition until 1998 when it became an annual event. From 1983 till 2006 the tournament was held in either Kuala Lumpur or Ipoh. However since 2007, on the instructions of HRH Sultan Azlan Shah, the tournament has been permanently held in Ipoh, a move that has seen the quality of the sport gradually improving.
As the name suggests, the SAS Cup is totally the initiative of HRH Sultan Azlan Shah, then Raja Tan Sri Azlan Shah, the Lord President of the Federal Court of Malaysia, an avid field hockey enthusiast who was also the President of the Malaysian Hockey Federation from 1976 until 2004.
Long Term Strategy
According to Tan Sri P. Alagendra, the current Secretary General of the Asian Hockey Federation who was the Vice President of MHF then, the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup was created to improve the performance of the Malaysian teams.
In 1975, at the Hockey World Cup tournament held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia emerged 4th after they were beaten by Germany, ranking them as 4th best in the world after India, Pakistan and West Germany. Subsequently, in the Junior World Cup held in Paris in1979 and again in 1982 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia was ranked 4th in both events.
In order for Malaysia ‘to achieve a podium finish’ the strategy was to have Malaysian teams play at good tournaments with teams stronger than them and at the same time ‘inspire youth to take up the game’ explained Alagendra.
Back then the only opportunity to play world class hockey teams was at the Asian Games and Hockey World Cup. There was the Indira Gandhi Invitational but that was irregular and did not serve the purpose.
Hence, the Azlan Shah Cup international invitational Hockey Tournament was started. Its first tournament in 1983 had only 4 teams participating but today it is the longest surviving invitational hockey tournament and is included in the International Hockey Federations (FIH) calendar of events annually.
The tournament structure is limited to 7 teams which allows the teams to play more games and would give the Malaysian team the opportunity to compete against different styles of teams from Asia, Europe and Oceania. The teams that competed in this year’s tournament were from Great Britain (ranked 4th), Korea (6th), New Zealand (7th), Pakistan (8th), Argentina (9th), India (10th) and Malaysia (13th).
Becoming the Hockey Hub
According to Dato’ Abdul Rahim Md Ariff, Chairman of the SAS Cup Organising Committee, the vision of HRH Sultan Azlan Shah to make Ipoh the Hockey Hub of Asia is facilitated by the infrastructure that has been put in place.
These include the Stadium Azlan Shah for field hockey, the Stadium Indera Mulia the venue for international indoor hockey tournaments and the AHF-MHC Hockey Academy which trains hockey officials from all over Asia.
Stadium Azlan Shah, built in 1984 to Olympic standards, is the permanent venue of the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup. It has a seating capacity for 10,000 spectators and full media facilities. The stadium’s Astroturf was upgraded this year from green to blue and pink in time for the tournament.
“Stadium Indera Mulia indoor stadium is the only indoor stadium in Malaysia that has complete indoor hockey facilities”, Rahim declared. The first Asian Indoor Hockey Tournament was held there in 2008 and has been held there since. Rahim went on to explain that indoor hockey was a strategy of the future where the basic hockey skills were learnt at indoor hockey and transferred to field hockey later.
The Asian Hockey Federation-Malaysian Hockey Confederation or AHF-MHC Hockey Academy was opened is May 2011 last year with the goal to accelerate the development of the game in Asia. The academy conducts four courses per year on coaching and umpiring with one course to be held during the Sultan Azlan Shah tournament to provide exposure for the officials. Each course can accommodate 30 participants.
As testimony of all the efforts initiated, for the first time this year, Malaysia won the Junior Asia Cup in the competition’s 25 year history, when they beat Pakistan 2-1. On the national level Perak’s under 18 boys and girls teams took the champions titles during this year’s Malaysia School Sports Council/MSSM games.
Similarly, during this year’s Sultan Azlan Shah Cup 2012, Malaysia’s fielding of the senior and junior players paid dividends in terms of more spirited and creative play which showed in the results when they drew 1-1 with Korea, 3-3 with Great Britain and even managed to beat the Pakistan Team 3-2. Although finishing in 6th place, it nevertheless reflected a new spirit of play by the players.
Target – Asia Cup
Rahim, who is also the Chairman of MHC’s Competitions Committee revealed that Malaysia’s next target is ‘to win the Asia Cup to be held in Ipoh in the 2nd quarter of next year. The winners of the Asia Cup will qualify for the World Cup tournament to be held the following year.
“That is the reason that Tuanku is bringing the Asia Cup to Ipoh next year,” exclaimed Rahim, explaining that Malaysia’s chances of winning against the Asian teams was strong. Malaysia is part of the top 4 Asian teams, the others being India, Pakistan and Korea. A review of its scores against the teams of India, Pakistan and Korea is a good indicator of its strength.
With the Asia Cup being held in the 2nd quarter of next year, the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup has been pushed forward to the 1st quarter, probably in February-March. Due to this rescheduling, the committee hopes to have more European teams participating.
It is apparent that what started as an initiative to expose Malaysia’s hockey players to challenging experiences is beginning to bear fruit. The notion of being a Hockey Hub is feasible as Rahim says “we already have all the facilities for indoor and field hockey, an international class stadium plus an academy and we have the support of the International Hockey Federation (FIH) who include us in their calendar of events annually.”
At the start of this feature the intent and purpose was to highlight the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup Invitational Hockey Tournament as an international sporting event unique to Malaysia and more specifically to Ipoh.
However, after the research it became apparent that the goal is to make Malaysia the No. 1 Hockey Team in Asia. It may have been a long journey but with all the initiatives put in place to upgrade the standard of the game, the light at the end of the tunnel is beginning to look brighter.
Currently the short term goal is to win the Asia Cup but as Rahim so nonchalantly put it “they hope to put in more goals for the World Cup, Asian Games and ultimately the Olympics.”