Battling with a spate of injuries and non-selection of two star players -- Sandeep Singh and Sardara Singh -- double defending champions India will seek to complete a hat-trick of titles at the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup hockey tournament that begins here tomorrow.
Five-time gold medallists at the Azlan Shah Cup, India were adjudged joint winners along with South Korea last year when the final was disrupted by bad weather.
The Indians had earlier won the cup outright in 2009, and they currently share the tournament record of five titles with Australia, who are seeking to test their new crop of players ahead of next year's London Olympics.
The seven-nation round-robin tournament, which will end with a title showdown on May 15 between the top two placed teams, also feature Asian Games champions Pakistan, Asian Games silver medallists Malaysia, Great Britain, South Korea and New Zealand.
Pakistan and hosts Malaysia have retained the bulk of the Guangzhou Asian Games squad.
Last year's gold medal at the Asian Games has provided a new-found belief to the Pakistan side, which had not won any significant title since the 1994 World Cup, while Malaysia are now reaping the dividends of investing in young players over the past few years.
Injured former captain Rajpal Singh and Tushar Khandekar's absence could affect the Indian team's strike power, while the decision to keep out Sandeep and Sardara will put additional pressure on India's defence.
Sandeep and Sardara were not considered for selection as they did not secure sanction from the national federation before proceeding to play in the Belgian League. The duo also did not report for a preparatory camp in New Delhi ahead of the tournament.
Seasoned striker Arjun Halappa will lead the Indian team, which will be banking a lot on its midfield in the event, which is also seen as a preparatory tournament for next year's Olympic qualifiers to be held on its soil.
The shock semi-final loss to Malaysia in the Asian Games has forced India once again to play the Olympic qualifiers.
In 2008 Beijing Games, eight-time champions India had failed to feature in the starting line-up of the Olympics for the first time in 80 years.
India's chief coach Harendra Singh, expectedly, said the competition here would be tough as most of the teams are looking to fine-tune their line-ups in the run-up to the 2012 Olympics.
Incidentally, Harendra was deputy to former chief coach Jose Brasa at the Asian Games and was widely criticised for announcing his resignation in the middle of the event after India's semifinal defeat to Malaysia.