For a tournament that is into its 30th edition, winning the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup has been a case of so near and yet so far for hosts Malaysia. The Arul-Selvaraj-coached Speedy Tigers have managed to reach the final of the 1985 edition, where they lost to India 2-4. It took 22 years before Malaysia made its next final appearance in the 2007 edition, where they lost to Australia 1-3. Two years later at the 2009 edition, the Speedy Tigers went down to India 1-3 in the final. Malaysia’s next final appearance was at the 2014 edition, where they came second-best to the Kookaburras 2-3 – at the 2015 edition they again lost to Australia 3-8 in the final.
It is after a hiatus of seven years that the Najmi Jazlan-captained Malaysia have reached the final of the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup and they really made it count, outduelling reigning champions South Korea in an intriguing final tussle at Ipoh. Talented 23-year-old midfielder Shello Silverius did the most important thing – putting the hosts in front in the closing stages of the opening quarter, which must have settled their nerves on the big occasion. Veteran South Korean drag-flicker Jang Jonghyun evened things up almost immediately firing home a shortie.
The match could have gone either with the 1-1 half-time scoreline. Razie Rahim regained the lead for the Speedy Tigers with a penalty stroke conversion in the dying moments of the third quarter and a little later Mohammed Muhd gave the home side a two-goal cushion. Two goals in a span of three minutes was just what was needed for Malaysia to get their noses in front in a tight and tense match. Of course, South Korea refused to throw in the towel and hit back via a short corner conversion from Jeon Byungjin, but they had far little time to push for the equaliser or even stretch the contest beyond regulation time.
The win is all the more significant for Malaysia considering the fact that they were depleted somewhat by the injury-induced absence of regular skipper Marhan Jalil, who is recovering from a hairline fracture sustained during the national team’s recent tour of Belgium. The Speedy Tigers were also without the forward duo Shahril Saabah, Muhajir Abdu Rauf on injury grounds as well as sans celebrated striker Faizal Saari, who is busy playing in the Dutch league.
The Sultan Azlan Shah Cup glory could be just the tonic the world number 10 Malaysia needed ahead of kickstarting their 2023 World Cup preparations. With many of their regulars expected to be available for the showpiece event in India, one can expect the Speedy Tigers to spring some surprises at the 2023 World Cup.
Image: Courtesy Malaysian Hockey Confederation