NEW DELHI: Three years in the making, millions of ringgit spent and 165 players scanned.
The stage is now all set for the final 18-man Malaysian hockey squad to begin their challenge in the 10th edition of the Junior World Cup at the Major Dhyan Chand National Stadium here tomorrow.
Despite the millions spent, a top-six placing is the target set for them - from the initial top-four finish.
The Malaysians have had the best preparations in what is also yet another Malaysian Hockey Confederation (MHC)-National Sports Council (NSC) collaboration – similar to that in 1979, 1982, 1985 and 1989.
Two former players – Mirnawan Nawawi (manager) and K. Dharmaraj (coach) – were handed the task in 2010 and they have done well, considering that the team won the Junior Asian Cup in Malacca last year for the first time.
But the Junior World Cup is a different stage – and ball game.
This team, however, have one advantage because, thanks to the Johor HA, they had the chance to play in the Sultan of Johor Cup in September – which brought together some of the top junior teams in the world.
This team finished second to India after losing 3-0 in the final.
The best 18 players have been selected and five of them – Fitri Saari, Mohd Syamin Mohd Yusof, Faiz Helmi Jali, Mohd Firhan Azhaari and Rashid Baharom – have had stints with the senior team.
So, in addition to their lengthy training programme, the team also have experienced players to bank on.
All in all, the team have played about 40 matches in the run-up to the Junior World Cup and Mirnawan believes they have done all they could and the rest is now up to the players.
“At this stage, we are just waiting for the matches to start. We play New Zealand on the first day and that will be a good indication of where we stand,” he said.
“It will be tough as we are not sure how good the teams are. We have to expect the worst as the others would have had good preparation too. The main thing is to get the players to play their normal game.
“All they need to do is follow the coach’s instructions. We have New Zealand, South Africa and England in our group. Our first objective is to finish top two in the group. After that, we’ll take it one step at a time.
“To achieve our top six target, it is crucial that we make the quarter-finals.”
Besides the five senior players, two others – penalty corner specialists Mohd Shahril Saabah and Zulhairi Hashim – will have pivotal roles to play as well.
“These two players are very important to us. They need to make their flicks count ... it could be the difference between winning and losing,” said Mirnawan.
“Overall, we have good players in all department to see us through.”
Five-time champions Germany will start as the early favourites to win the title but teams like India, Australia, Holland and Argentina are also likely to be in the title mix.
Apart from Germany, the other teams who have won the title before are Pakistan, Australia, India and Argentina.
At this stage, it is anybody’s game and Malaysia can take heart that they – as Asian champions – can be considered title challengers as well.
All teams will go into action on Friday and the results on that day will surely set the tone for the tournament.So, let’s play ball!
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