WHILE the rest of the world prepares to usher in the new year, the Malaysian national hockey team have not been given the luxury to party.
They have been working overtime before departing for the 15th edition of the FIH Hockey World Cup in Bhubaneswar and Rourkela, India, a week from today, which happens to coincide with chief coach A. Arulselvaraj’s 49th birthday.
In the World Cup, Arulselvaraj is eyeing to get out of Pool C consisting of world No. 3 Holland, New Zealand and Chile, with the group winners earning a bye to the last eight.
The Johor-born former player is on the verge of becoming only the seventh coach to guide Malaysia to the World Cup, following in the footsteps of the late Datuk Ho Koh Chye (Amstelveen 1973, Kuala Lumpur 1975 and Buenos Aires 1978), Datuk R. Yogeswaran (Bombay 1981), Volker Knapp (Utrecht 1998), Paul Lissek (Kuala Lumpur 2002), Dharmaraaj Abdullah (The Hague 2014) and Roelant Oltmans (Bhubaneswar 2018).
Interestingly, from that group of eminent coaches, Arulselvaraj is the odd one out, having guided the Speedy Tigers to the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup victory for the first time ever in November, ending a 39-year wait in the process.
Since being given the trust by the Malaysian Hockey Confederation (MHC) to succeed Oltmans in August 2020, Arulselvaraj has produced a blueprint that is dynamic and not cast in stone.
In it is the role other stakeholders like the top guns from MHC, the National Sports Council (NSC) and the National Sports Institute (NSI) and of course the players, has to carry out.
A voracious reader who prefers non-fiction, Arulselvaraj knows winning a tournament is never by coincidence or accident. Thus far, he has brought the team to the Asia Cup runners-up spot in Jakarta in June this year, the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup title in November and the most recent, fourth place in the Nations Cup in South Africa.
An individual who has had the pleasure of working closely alongside Arulselvaraj is Datuk Mirnawan Nawawi, himself a legendary player and now team manager of the senior team.
“The victory in the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup remains very significant, despite whatever the detractors say. We finally broke the jinx as previous teams were known to choke in a final.
“In the past, for all the talent at Malaysia’s disposal, we have finished bridesmaids in major tournaments such as the 2018 Palembang Asian Games, the Asian Champions Trophy in 2017 and the 2010 Guangzhou Asian Games.
“We needed the win to show everyone that we know how to win a final,” said Mirnawan, a triple Olympian who is known as Boss in the hockey fraternity.
Media savvy long before he made a name as a commentator-cum-analyst-cum-television host, Mirnawan described Arulselvaraj as a Malaysian with a European mentality.
“Arul has the full package as a coach. He is working hard to effect changes in the players’ mindset.
“Malaysia have always had a huge talent pool in hockey but our biggest drawback is our mentality.
“Thanks to his planning to the minute detail, timing and the frequency of training and managing the talent he has at his disposal on and off the pitch, Arul is gradually getting the results.”
Managing the likes of Marhan Jalil, Shahril Saabah, Faizal Saari and Firhan Ashaari includes managing their families as well.
“Ultimately, we want the players to enjoy a balanced life, so that they can give their full commitment during training and competition,” said Mirnawan.
For Arulselvaraj, fondly called Panjang by the late Sultan Azlan Shah, he has set his sights on the Paris Olympics in 2024.
So happened Mirnawan was the skipper and contingent flagbearer the last time Malaysia qualified for the Olympics in Sydney 2000.
But Paris 2024 may be a station too far for the Speedy Tigers if the rest of the stakeholders are not prepared to provide a top-class environment and support for the team – an element craved by Arulselvaraj.
For both Arulselvaraj and Mirnawan, they subscribe to the idiom he who rides a tiger is afraid to dismount. At this point of time, they cannot abandon this project.
For they are the duo tasked to make sure the Speedy Tigers earn their stripes, come rain or shine.