Replacing a talismanic figure like S. Kumar is no easy task, but national assistant coach Nasihin Nubli, who also acts as the team’s goalkeeper coach, believes that it is time for the other goalkeepers to show up.
On Tuesday, national coach Roelant Oltmans announced a 34-men squad for a centralised training camp to prepare for the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup and he selected four goalkeepers, who will be assessed over the next three weeks.
The selected goalkeepers are Tenaga Nasional’s Mohd Hairi Abd Rahman, Universiti Kuala Lumpur’s (UniKL) Adrian Andy Albert, Terengganu’s Mohd Hazrul Faiz Ahmad Sobri and Maybank’s Mohd Zaimi Mat Deris.
Of the four, Mohd Hazrul makes a return to the national team after five years, as he has been part of the national indoor hockey team for many years.
His last call-up was in 2015, and he was one of the two goalkeepers to play in the Junior World Cup in New Delhi, India.
Adrian, Hairi and Zaimi have been part of the team in the last few years, and last year they were part of the European and South Korean Tour to prepare for the Olympic qualifiers.
Zaimi, together with Kumar, took part in the qualifiers, where they were bundled out by Britain 3-9 aggregate in their two-legged match in London.
While Hairi and Adrian did not feature much for their clubs in the recently-concluded Malaysian Hockey League (MHL), Hazrul and Zaimi have impressed many with their shot-stopping skills.
However, the influence of Kumar cannot be disputed as he has been with the national team since 1999 and amassed 321 caps.
For Nasihin, it is time for the new ones to show that they have what it takes to play for the national side.
“Besides Hazrul, the others have taken part in numerous national assignments over the years. As understudies to Kumar, they are aware of what the national team want, ” he said.
“To be honest, being a former national goalkeeper myself, I know it is a position in which it is hard to gain experience. There is only one spot for a goalkeeper in the first 11, so competition is very fierce.
“Hairi, Adrian and Zaimi had their chances with Roelant and certainly gained lots of exposure during our European tour.
“Now, they cannot think like understudies. Every single one should be ready to go for the number one spot. They understand the demands, and I feel that they are ready for the challenge.”
Oltmans has opted for 11 fresh faces as he looks to rebuild the Speedy Tigers to a higher level, with eyes on the 2022 Asian Games, 2022 Commonwealth Games, 2023 World Cup and 2024 Olympics.
The Dutch coach has also omitted five seasoned players including skipper Sukri Mutalib, the Saari brothers Faizal and Fitri, Nabil Fikri Mohd Noor and Joel van Huizen from his 34-player squad for the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup in Ipoh from April 11-18.
The new-look team, which has an average of 23.9, will start their centralised training camp on March 2 and will be evaluated for three weeks before the squad is trimmed to 18 for the Azlan Shah Cup.