Indian coach C.R. Kumar says the stakes are always high when his Asian Junior Cup champion side squares off with Pakistan in the opening match of the Sultan of Johor Cup 2023 at the Taman Daya Hockey Stadium in Johor Baharu on Oct 27.

It will be a battle of nerves. The side that handles the pressure well for 60 minutes on Friday will triumph. India is placed in Group B alongside host Malaysia and New Zealand and Pakistan. The top two teams advance to the semifinals.

“It is going to be an interesting encounter because both teams want to win this opening match of the SOJC. It will give a lot confidence,” said Kumar, who guided his side to a 5-4 victory on penalties against Australia in the 2022 final.

“Secondly, Pakistan has exposed their players in many tournaments in the last few months such as Asian Games and Asian Champions Trophy and have been consistently playing well at highest level. We don’t take any team for granted. We will definitely keep ourselves disciplined in the game and work towards a win,” he added.

In the recent Asian Junior Cup in Oman, Pakistan defeated Malaysia 6-2 in the semifinals for a showdown with India in the final. The Indians went on to win 2-1 for the gold medal.

“It is also a good preparation from our side as well. Being defending champions obviously the expectation is high but some of our key players are not in the squad now as they are in rehabilitation programme while others are training for the World Cup. We are nevertheless geared towards giving a good performance in the SOJC. However, the World Cup in December is our priority,” said Kumar.

“We had a practice game against Indonesia yesterday and our players were sweating too much. The heat is of no different than that in Bangalore but we can manage that. We played four quarters of 10 minutes each as we don’t want to push the players too much as we have back-to-back matches in the tournament starting on Friday,” he said.

He added that the objective for all teams here will be to test their squads and try out new players ahead of the Junior World Cup in December.

“As we have a few injured players, there will be an opportunity for fringe players to stake a claim for the Junior World Cup team” he added. “After all the SOJC offers the last chance to all players to claim a spot in the final squad.”

Indian team captain Uttam Singh, added: “We are honoured to represent India as the defending Champions in the 11th Sultan of Johor Cup. It’s a privilege to lead this talented group of players. Our focus is on maintaining the high standards we’ve set for ourselves and showing the world the spirit and skill of Indian hockey.

“We are well-prepared, and our goal is to bring the trophy back home. The rivalry with Pakistan adds an extra layer of intensity to our campaign, and we’re looking forward to a strong start against them.”