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Azlan stepping stone to Olympic qualifiers

india Updated: May 04, 2011 23:53 IST
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It feels great to be back in Ipoh for the Azlan Shah - India's favourite hockey ground after home. For the first time, I will be entering the competition with the captain's armband, and it was something I never expected. I am yet to come to terms with the fact that I have been deemed worthy for such a big honour.

Leading the Indian national side in any sport can never be estimated. More so in hockey, which still has a lot of emotional connect with the people. It is a feeling that can be understood only when you have it, and right now I am still trying to get used to it.

Harendra my mentor
I am a middle-class boy from Coorg. The country and the game of hockey are so great that it provided me with a level playing field, and now I find myself with the leadership baton.

What has made this Azlan Shah so special is that the men's coach at the moment is Harendra Singh, who initiated me into international hockey way back in 1999. The fact that CR Kumar, then assistant coach, is now in-charge of the women's team only completes the happy coincidence, and I am grateful to both for not only starting me in this game but also supporting me through the years.

Talented bunch
Coming back to this team, I am confident about my boys. There has been lot of talk about the team being inexperienced and under pressure, but I think the biggest requirement for them right now is to play without expectations and pressure. They are all talented and with seniors like me, Vikram Pillay and Bharat Chhetri in the side - the three survivors from the 1999 batch - to guide them, I am sure the youngsters will prove themselves worthy of an India cap.

Every time we win, the feeling is special. We were the finalists in the last three editions of the Cup, and I know how the ethnic crowd here joins in celebrating each victory.

Eye on qualifiers
This is also the season opener, coming after last year's Asian Games.

Hockey fans around the world would be expecting us to go for the kill, but our focus is on the Olympic qualifier next year. We need to maximise our strengths, plug the weaknesses and sustain a decent performance. With seven top teams in the fray, consistency is what is going to count. We aim to equip ourselves better for the crucial qualifiers keeping Azlan Shah as the stepping stone.

Strong Koreans
Somehow, I don't feel like it's a different edition. We could not play the final last year because of rains, and had to share the trophy with Korea, who will be our first opponents here on Thursday.

So, in a way, we are only carrying forward from where we had left last year. The Koreans have always been fighters and no game against them will be one-sided. We could not observe their game much here, but I am sure, they will also be keen on trying some new faces ahead of the Olympic qualifiers and I expect a good contest on Thursday.

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