The 26th edition of the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup, the oldest invitational tournament in the world incepted in 1983, began on Saturday, April 29 at the Azlan Shah Stadium, Ipoh.
Named after our ninth King, who was himself a hockey player, the tournament has been on the International Hockey Federation’s calendar since 1998. It started off as a biennial tournament but due to overwhelming response, it became an annual fixture.
Malaysian supporters’ hopes of seeing the national team lifting the cup for the first time were dashed when the host team came second best from the bottom, defeating Japan in the 5th to 6th placing playoff.
All six teams participating in this year’s tournament namely, Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand, India and Japan played their hearts out. The host team’s performance, on the whole, according to coach, Stephen van Huizen, was “satisfactory”.
Expect the unexpected
The Speedy Tigers faced the Samurais from Japan on the first day of the tournament. Ranked 16th, many predicted that this would be a walk in the park for the national team, considering their impressive campaign earlier this year. However, to everyone’s surprise, the game ended in a 1-1 draw. Malaysia’s solitary goal was scored by former captain, Razie Rahim at the 8th minute. Japan’s Yamata Shota equalised with a dramatic field goal soon after.
Earning only a single point on the first day’s outing, it was another bad day for the Malaysians when they went down 6-1 to the gritty Aussies. Despite improvements in controlling the game, it was evident that Faizal Saari’s penalty stroke conversion did little to inspire the home team and they went down tamely.
The boys suffered successive defeats against Great Britain (0-1) and New Zealand (0-1). The defeat against the Kiwis ended Malaysia’s hope of securing a spot in the third-fourth classification match, although they still had a game against 6th ranked India on May 5.
With nothing to lose, Malaysia rose to the occasion and went one up, thanks to Sharil Saabah’s penalty corner shot at the 51th minute. The score remained unchanged till the final whistle destroying India’s chance of battling Australia for the top spot.
Others had improved too
Claiming that the boys had performed well in the tournament and were only let down by poor finishing, perhaps it was time to change tactics. The Speedy Tigers had definitely improved over the years but so had the other teams, especially Japan when they shocked Australia with a 3-2 score line, destroying the Aussie’s stellar performance thus far.
Malaysia, however, defeated Japan 3-1 on the final day, Saturday, May 6, securing the fifth (out of six) placing.
The result of the 26th Sultan Azlan Shah Cup saw Great Britain ending their 23-year dry spell when they beat last year’s champion, Australia 4-3. India came third, overcoming a tired New Zealand 4-0.
The Brits vowed to maintain their winning streak at the same tournament next year.
Consistency is the mantra
Although Malaysia has five penalty corner specialists in the form of Mohd Razie Rahim, Faizal Saari, Shahril Saabah and Muhammad Haziq Samsul, are the Speedy Tigers ready for World Hockey League and the 2018 Hockey World Cup in London?
“Although we’ve improved in the past four years, other teams have improved too. Personally, I’m not worried about our team’s performances because they are getting better,” said Stephen.
Dropping one notch, back to being 14th in the International Hockey Federation’s ranking, is reason enough for the Malaysians to remain consistent in their games. They have to be serious if they want to be among the top ten teams in the world, considering that we were fourth best once.
Ili Aqilah & Nabilah Hamudin