Malaysia's Mohd Faizal Saari makes a diving tackle on South Africa's Brandon Panther during their Sultan Azlan Shah Cup hockey match in Ipoh on Thursday. Malaysia won 3-2 with Faizal scoring the winning goal. - SAIFUL BAHRI/The Star
IPOH: National chief coach K. Dharmaraj gambled by fielding five newcomers and it paid off handsomely as Malaysia edged South Africa 3-2 in their opening match of the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup.
Malaysia, ranked 13th in the world, led twice against world No. 12 South Africa in the closely-contested match at the Azlan Shah Stadium on Friday.
It was a joyful day for strikers Mohd Shahril Saabah and Mohd Rashid Baharom as they marked their international debuts by sounding the board in the 10th and 42nd minutes respectively.
South Africa did well to come back from a goal down twice to make it 2-2 through Jethro Eustice, who converted two penalty corners in the 16th and 57th minutes.
The hero for Malaysia was nippy forward Faizal Saari, who scored off a penalty corner in the 63rd minute.
The other Malaysian players who made their senior team debut were goalkeeper Mohd Hafizuddin Othman, defender Shazril Irwan Nazli and midfielder Mohd Azri Hassan.
Reserve goalkeeper Mohd Hazrul Faiz Ahmad Sobri is the only player yet to play his first match for the senior team.
In the match, Malaysia’s poor penalty corner conversion rate stood out like a sore thumb as they only managed to score once from 12 attempts.
Malaysia got off to an aggressive start with the unmarked Shahril deflecting Rashid Baharom’s cross from the right past opposing goalkeeper Erasmus Pieterese.
But the joy was short-lived as South Africa equalised six minutes later off their second penalty corner.
Eustice’s low but powerful flick sailed past the inexperienced goalkeeper Mohd Hafizuddin.
Malaysia had a chance to take the lead in the 25th minute but midfielder Meor Azuan Mohamed failed to connect the ball into goal from close range.
After the breather, it was Malaysia who piled on the pressure and were rewarded in the 42nd minute.
Mohd Firhan Ashaari made a solo run on the left before squaring to Rashid, who slammed it into the goal. Baharom was later named the Man-of-the-Match.
But South Africa fought back to make it 2-2 through Eustice, whose 57th minute low penalty corner flick again beat Hafizuddin.
But Faizal, who was the joint top scorer with India’s Rupinder Pal Singh in the tournament last year with six goals, had the last say when he scored the winning goal in the 63rd minute from the 12th penalty corner awarded.
Dharmaraj was pleased with the performance of the new players.
“They really played well and, even though we missed a number of penalty corners, we are happy to collect full points against the Africans, who are ranked higher than us.
“It was a good start for us in the tournament and the win is definitely a booster for our next match against Asia Cup champions South Korea on Sunday,” said Dharmaraj.
The coach said they only have one experienced penalty corner flicker in Faizal as the main taker Mohd Razie Abdul Rahim is nursing a shoulder injury.
Skipper Azlan Misron, who has 324 international caps, said that the five new players combined well with the seniors.
“It shows that they can play well at the senior level and this is good for the national team,” said Azlan.