Defending champion, Australia, once again showed who is boss in men’s field hockey when they thrashed Malaysia 8-3 to win their eighth Sultan Azlan Shah Cup title at the recently concluded tournament in Ipoh. It was a repeat of last year’s final, but this time, Australia drew first blood with a stinging goal in the 6th minute through a penalty corner.
Chris Ciriello, who was credited with the goal, later scored three more times for Australia. Malaysia defended in numbers but were outmanoeuvred by the more robust and experienced World Champions. By halftime, the Australians were up 3-1.
Backed by a boisterous home crowd with blaring horns and thundering drums, Malaysia started strongly in the second half and were the first to score at the 40th minute. It was a magnificent field goal that was deflected into the Australian net by Rashid Baharom. Undeterred, the Aussies came back again to score next with three penalty corners and a field goal, respectively at the 42nd, 46th, 52nd and 65th minute.
At 2-7 down, Malaysia never gave up and continued to fight bravely. With only ten minutes left on the clock, both Malaysia and Australia netted a field goal each, at the 67th minute by Fitri Saari and an immediate counter-attack at the 68th minute by Tristan White, scoring his first senior international goal.
Australia may have won by a convincing margin, but it was quite a feat for the young and experimental Malaysian side, many of them not only playing in their first major final but earning their first senior international cap at the tournament. The mighty Aussies, currently ranked number one in the world, conceded a total of only six goals in the tournament. Five of them were from Malaysia in two matches.
In the last two round-robin matches to decide Australia’s opponent in the final, Australia played Malaysia while Korea faced South Africa. Malaysia already had a goal lead over Korea going into the match which they eventually lost 2-6. Korea, on the other hand, needed a four-goal advantage against South Africa. Korea ended up beating South Africa 5-2 but it was not enough for the Koreans, who missed out on a final place to Malaysia on count back.
Making the final was already a huge accomplishment for Coach K. Dharmaraj’s young charges. To have pulled off a victory would be a pipe dream for the world number 13. Malaysia will face Australia in the opening match of Group A of the World Cup Finals in The Hague, Holland, on May 31. The experience gained will prove invaluable for our youngsters.
In the earlier bronze medal playoff, Asian champions Korea salvaged some pride when they scored a penalty corner seconds from time to register a 3-2 win over China, the lowest ranked team in the tournament. China is ranked 25th in the world with only 482 points. Meanwhile, Canada took fifth spot with a 2-0 win over South Africa, a World Cup qualifier by virtue of having won the Africa Cup of Nations last year.
This year’s 23rd edition of Sultan Azlan Shah Cup, an annual invitational international men’s field hockey tournament, which was held at Stadium Azlan Shah from March 13 to 23, saw the participation of six nations, namely Australia, Canada, Korea, South Africa, China and hosts, Malaysia.
India and Pakistan, for obvious reasons have given this year’s tournament a miss, but there was no lacking in world class hockey due to the fact that four of the six teams are World Cup qualifiers, and would be competing in The Hague, Holland in May. The teams had rightly used this tournament to size each other up.
Even for China, whom many had thought were at the tournament to make up the number, had played extremely well after losing to Australia 0-7 in the first round-robin match. The Chinese came back strongly from that embarrassing defeat to spring surprise after surprise, to claim fourth place in the tournament, above Canada and South Africa, world number 16 and 12, respectively.
This year’s tournament may have ended but the memories will linger forever. Once again, the thrill of hockey lifted the spirits of everyone involved, as the teams took to the field and laid their limbs and bodies on the line for the love of the sport.
Ipoh has always provided a fantastic venue for this annual tournament, the brainchild of HRH Sultan Azlan Shah, as fans really know how to appreciate a good game of hockey. The pulsating drum beats, the glaring flares and the endless screams of ecstasy and joy whenever our boys took possession of the ball punctuated the night air. The fury did much to ignite the passion of both players and fans alike. Being in the stadium is an experience in itself.
The 24th edition next year will be eagerly awaited by those who have come to consider this annual tournament a gathering of the best hockey talents in the world. Ipoh has gained a foothold on the hockey calendar of the world, and that is a fact Ipohites should be proud of.