Ipoh: Eyes firmly set on a much-improved performance in Olympics, an experimental Indian men's hockey team will kick start its preparation for the quadrennial event with the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup, where it will meet Japan in its opening match on Wednesday.
Eight-time Olympic gold medallist, India's tune-up for the Rio Games will get underway tomorrow at this quaint capital of Malaysia's Perak state as the opening fixture against Japan allows the team an opportunity to find its feet before running into stronger oppositions that include reigning world champions Australia.
With the Olympic Games just four months away, India want to make the most of their appearance in the 25th edition of the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup, while promising to improve upon their bronze medal effort of last year.
Boosted by their bronze medal win in the Hockey World League Finals at Raipur in last December, India will test the ability of several youngsters in reproducing their strategic training in match situations in the Azlan Shah Cup.
India have picked a squad with many young players from the core group as coach Roelant Oltmans is eager to test their ability and match temperament before he decides on the team for the Olympic Games in August.
Oltmans makes no bones about the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup being a test for the youngsters, inducted into the Indian squad in place of several seasoned players, who have been provided much-needed rest.
"International sport is all about showcasing your skills on the big stage. The young players will be under scrutiny," said Oltmans, a former Dutch national coach who has now spent considerable time in different roles with the Indian squad.
"The Sultan Azlan Shah Cup is a chance for the young Indian players to prove that they are ready for major competitions, but they should not be put under too much pressure," said the Dutch hockey legend, who is also aware of the expectations from Indian hockey fans.
Aiming to Focus on one game at a time, Oltmans is aware that they can't afford to take any team lightly.
But India's major challenge is expected from a strong Australian outfit, which is keen to reclaim the title from Oceania rivals New Zealand.
Australia have won the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup on eight occasions, followed by India's five title triumphs. Last year, Australia were beaten 3-1 in a penalty shootout by New Zealand after a thrilling 2-2 draw in regulation period.
Between them, Australia and New Zealand have won the last five titles since 2011.
The last of India's five titles came in 2011, when they shared the trophy with South Korea as torrential showers washed out the final encounter.
Besides Australia and New Zealand, the only country here to have qualified for the Olympics is Canada.
Asian Games gold medallists India, the lone men's team from this continent to qualify for the 2016 Olympics, will lead the challenge of four Asian sides.
Former world champions Pakistan, hosts Malaysia and Japan complete the lineup for the tournament that will be played on a round-robin basis, with the top two teams clashing in the final and the next two in the bronze medal play-off game.
Australia have brought their strongest squad to Ipoh. Leading the Australian charge is ace striker Jamie Dwyer, a veteran of 351 international appearance. He is backed by robust defenders like Mark Knowles (275 international caps) and Chris Cirrello (177 caps).
Seeking back-to-back titles, defending champions New Zealand have recalled veteran midfielder Shea McAleese to the squad after a nine-month break. McAleese's 221 international appearance for New Zealand are next only to the experienced duo of Ryan Archibald (306) and skipper Simon Child (253).
Sultan Azlan Shah Cup's scheduling this year has made it a vital cog in India's Olympic preparation. India's only other major hockey outing before Rio will be the Champions Trophy in London in June.
The Ipoh outing will be a test of the Indian players' ability to assess different styles of play and strive to match them.
Captained by Sardar Singh, the Indian team includes some seasoned performers like vice-captain SV Sunil, Rupinder Pal Singh, Kothajit Singh and Manpreet Singh.
Matching the performance of these experienced teammates will be a test for the youngsters.