5 7 2008 12061 l - Olympic nations fine-tune at Sultan Azlan Shah Cup

Olympic nations fine-tune at Sultan Azlan Shah Cup

IPOH, Malaysia: Four Olympic-bound nations aim to fine-tune their preparations at the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup this week, while India struggle to pick up the pieces after a
tumultuous few months.

Defending champions Australia are not playing, which opens the door for Canada, Belgium, Pakistan and New Zealand, who have all qualified for the Beijing Games in August.

Other teams in the fray at the annual men's field hockey tournament which starts Thursday are hosts Malaysia, runners-up to Australia last year, and Argentina.

How India fare will be closely watched with the national team in crisis after a bribery scandal and failure to qualify for the Olympics for the first time in 80 years saw their controversial hockey federation sacked.

The omens however do not look good, with the fallen giants winning only one of eight games at two mini tournaments in Australia over the past fortnight.

Once the masters of the sport, the Indians have not won a major tournament since taking the Asian Games gold medal in Bangkok in 1998.

India face New Zealand first up on Thursday, led by captain Tushar Khandekar.

Unlike India, a rejuvenated Pakistan are confident they can lift the trophy for the first time since 2003 as they build up for an assault on the Olympic title.

"We should win this tournament. Our players are fit and in top form. We are taking this tournament seriously because it will be part of our preparations for the Olympics in Beijing," said chief coach Khawaja Zakauddin.

They open their campaign against Malaysia, who were devastated at failing to qualify for Beijing and will be out to prove a point here.

"Judging by the teams competing this time, Malaysia have a fighting chance to win the tournament," said upbeat Malaysian Hockey Federation secretary Hashim Yusoff.

But the home nation are without three key players including veteran defender S. Kuhan, who has 330 international caps, but has yet to recover from a groin injury. Also out injured are midfielder Shahrun Nabil and forward Razie Abdul.

The other game Thursday sees Argentina play Belgium.

The tournament, which ends on May 18, began in 1983 as a biennial contest but became an annual event after 1998 following its growth and popularity.