The 19th edition of the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup (SAS Cup) came to an end on 16th May, where "Mother" nature took the top honours by ensuring that the final was washed out. As such, an unprecedented history was created in the SAS Cup for the 1st time as India and South Korea became Joint Champions. Both teams only had 7 minutes to display their skills when the rain took full control of proceedings from thereon.
This year's tournament had kept the hockey fans glued to the various matches as the finalists for 16th May were only confirmed on the last day of the round robin matches. Until then 5 nations ie Malaysia, India, Australia, South Korea and Pakistan were possible bidders for the 2 final spots. Fortunately India had Egypt and quite easily found a spot. Malaysia had finished their games a day earlier and the other 3 countries needed to win with sufficient margin to edge Malaysia in goal difference. The honour fell to South Korea who in a hard fought colourful march paraded with green, yellow and red cards with Pakistan secured a spot in the final.
The SAS Cup drew a large crowd at the ground and significant audience for the channel TV telecast. It is good to see nationwide viewers for the game as it would do wonders for hockey in Malaysia.
Equally we also have to look at the SAS Cup itself to ensure that the tournament gets better in coming years and it becomes even more prestigious. This is important for the sustainability of the tournament and that it remains a premier international event. The SAS Cup is sanctioned by the world hockey body ie FIH and there are stipulated conditions that need to be fulfilled. In theory the SAS Cup should attract some of the top hockey nations in the world like what had taken place in the earlier editions. As the years have gone by, some of the top nations tend to send a hybrid team blending experience with younger players for the experience of exposure. The bigger picture for these teams is to have a larger pool of talents that they could work on and upgrade them with time. This is not only the style of the Australians and South Koreans but lately the Indians and Pakistanis are slowly adopting such an outlook.
Top hockey nations do this because the SAS Cup has no bearing whatsoever on the respective teams international rankings. Winning or losing is purely a pride issue and nothing else. Although it is FIH sanctioned, again that is all about it. Indeed if any it is a "bonanza" for FIH as they use this tournament as a training ground for their Umpires and Technical Officers knowing very well errors by their officials would not have a "fatal" impact on world hockey. I wonder how many of our Umpires and Technical Officials were involved in this tournament?
If the host country is forward-looking, particularly their Coaching Committee, then they could have got FIH to conduct the FIH Coaching courses. Unfortunately MHF's Coaching Committee is a "coalition" of strange "bed mates", whose preoccupation is a mission of finding faults rather than creating talented coaches. With such an outlook and the prevailing lethargy they do not have the wisdom nor the direction to ensure such courses are organised for the benefit of deserving locals to upgrade their knowledge and skills. Yet another "lost opportunity" and this seems to be very common with the Coaching Committee.
Moving away from the peripheral issue of the SAS Cup to the tournament proper itself, we must find ways to get the top teams with their best players to be here. If not we are creating a "make believe" scenario that the world's no 1 and no 6 are here, as expounded by the narrators of the TV programme. This gives the impression that Malaysia is doing well or that world hockey standard is not high. This "misnomer" in perception can "back fire" especially when Malaysia struggles with "minnow" hockey playing countries or we falsely create a high expectation of our team with the Malaysian hockey fans.
The key question is: "How do we get the top hockey nations to bring their best players to the future SAS Cup?" We cannot allow top hockey nations to treat the SAS Cup purely as a training ground for their talents or for the FIH to have a "free ride" to train their officials. Rather a "symbiotic" relationship has to be created between the SAS Cup, the participating teams and FIH. All 3 must mutually benefit from the tournament.
Maybe and just maybe the answer could be if SAS Cup comes with the right prize money. It should be of such a value that it becomes a sensational attraction for teams literally begging to be invited for the SAS Cup. In this manner the organisers of the SAS Cup can dictate the requirements of participation. Prize money of US$150,000 for the winner and US$75,000 for the runner-up would surely provide the sufficient "magnetic pull" for the top and best teams to participate.
I do not know whether there are any rules in FIH with regards to prize monies. I do not believe so but if there are i am sure the Organisers of the SAS Cup can find ways to get the necessary exemption. It is an idea which i think can start the thinking process to ensure that the SAS Cup is a prestigious and premier event in the world hockey calendar. This can only happen if we have the top hockey nations with their best teams. Think about it if we want the SAS Cup to sustain itself in years to come.