KUALA LUMPUR: The just-concluded MHF Under-19 International Invitational hockey tournament showed that Malaysia have a group of talented players but there is still a long way to go to build a top-notch squad for the challenges in the 2005 Junior World Cup.
The tournament also featured three other Asian teams, who are eyeing for places in the Finals of the world's premier junior tournament.
They are India, Pakistan and South Korea and Malaysia will have to face the three teams again next year in the Junior Asia Cup in Lahore, which is the qualifying tournament for the Finals in Holland.
Reigning junior world champions India proved that they have the best team in the Under-19 invitational tournament and they have gone ahead in the preparation for the defence of the title.
India beat Malaysia 3-0 in the final on Sunday and it was their second title for them in six months. They emerged as champions in a four-nation international in Egypt last August.
In the tournament at the National Hockey Stadium in Bukit Jalil, India won three of the four matches. They drew 1-1 with Malaysia in the preliminary round.
For Malaysia, the tournament is the start of a campaign geared towards the 2005 Junior World Cup Finals. The team will have an extensive programme, which includes several Test series, a training tour of Germany and several four-nation tournaments.
The team have several players who will benefit from the exposure in the senior ranks. They are Megat Azrafiq, Mohamed Sallehin, Engku Malek Abdullah, Mohamed Suffian, Mohamed Fakhrulrazi and Mohamed Sharun Nabil. Another junior, Mohamed Anwar, is also with the seniors but he was dropped from the Under-19 tournament because he was short on fitness.
The tournament marked an end to Stephen van Huizen's stint as national coach. Last year, he took the junior side to victory in an Under-18 hockey festival in Poland. His secondment to the National Sports Council (NSC) as a full-time coach has expired and he has to return to his job in a bank.
The MHF are expected to name the new coach for the juniors after the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup tournament in March. Among the candidates are Tai Beng Hai and A. Arulselvaraj – who were the assistants to Stephen – Sarjit Singh, Lim Chiow Chuan and Nor Saiful Zaini.
The five are relatively newcomers to the coaching scene and the MHF could opt for more experienced hands in Maybank's Wallace Tan, Tenaga's K. Rajan, Colin Sta Maria and V. Shasidharan.
The Malaysian team are tactically sound and currently, the major shortcomings are their physical condition and their inability to vary their play in a match. The penalty corner rate of conversion is also a sore point.
Goalkeeper Khairul Nizam is the most improved payer in the team and will give Mohamed Hanapi a run for his money for the number one jersey.
The back four of Mohamed Sallehin, Mohamed Shukri, Engku Malek Abdullah and Megat Azrafiq are reliable and they need more flight matches to forge an even better understanding. And the department that needs to be strengthened is the midfield.
Pakistan have players with good skills and they will no doubt gain in strength as a team. The Koreans are now out of depth and it will be interesting to see how many of the players remain in the team following their failure to win a single match in the tournament.