CHENNAI: One look at past Asian Champions Trophy (ACT) schedules will confirm this event is being rebooted after three years of neglect. It was first held in 2011 (subsequently in 2012 and 2013) with a view to giving upcoming Asian sides opportunity to play the likes of India and Pakistan on a yearly basis. But teams didn’t take it seriously. That has changed this year with all six sides — hosts Malaysia, India, Pakistan, China, Japan and South Korea — fielding full-strength outfits.
The reason for this shift is the FIH decision to make the ACT a continental-ranking event. What this means is this is a mandatory tournament for teams who want to take part at the World Cup and the Olympic Games.
The presence of India and Pakistan, in the current climate, makes this tournament an intriguing one. Going purely on form, India are overwhelming favourites. Bronze at the World League Finals, silver at the Champions Trophy in London and Olympic quarterfinals is a good return for a team fighting for wooden spoons in every competition not that long ago.
One can actually make a case for saying India are under pressure to win — their recent dominance against Asian sides has been remarkable. In 2016, they have played four matches against Asian sides. The numbers? Won: four; goals for: 15; goals against: four. In 2015, they played nine matches, with the only loss coming against Malaysia. The records essentially translate to one solitary loss against Asian opponents since the beginning of 2015.
The rankings reflect the supremacy. India are sixth, with South Korea (at 11th), the next best ranked team. However, V Baskaran, former India skipper, said that counts for little. “See, I don’t really look at rankings. The likes of Malaysia and South Korea are usually there or thereabouts.”
A lot has been made about Pakistan’s decline and Baskaran blames it on the system. “Pakistan are nowhere. The talent maybe there but nobody is coming out of the system. In India you have many that you can name as world beaters. Pakistan? Not sure.”
Saying that, India and Pakistan, in the last two FIH-ranking events, have gone at each other with the fury of god’s own thunder. Champions Trophy in Bhubaneswar in 2014 and Asian Games in Incheon. Since then, the two have hurriedly marched towards opposing sides of the spectrum. Malaysia and South Korea, too, have failed to meet the heights of the naughties. A surprising result or two might set them on the right track before World Cup qualifiers.