Commonwealth Games 2018: Sardar Singh missed the bus due to coach Sjoerd Marijne's liking for scoring midfielders

In the end, the sweepstakes for the Commonwealth Games, or should we say for the duration of the year, were comfortably won by the youngsters. But it is bemusing that most media houses, websites and newspapers (TV doesn't care a damn) went with the leading headline that a certain ‘Sardar’ would be missing.

Him being dropped from the team made bigger news than the actual selection. Especially when you consider that both before and after the Azlan Shah Cup in Malaysia, his name wasn't even in contention for the Commonwealth Games. So, in a way, the Azlan Shah Cup was Sardar Singh’s last tournament. No? Well, according to a report in The Hindustan Times, coach Sjoerd Marijne says, “We had competition for midfield positions. Manpreet picks himself but Sardar was a contender for the other slot. The players finally picked are more diverse than Sardar, they can also score, all three of them (Chinglensana, Sumit and Vivek Sagar Prasad). They are also good defenders in the midfield and are fast as forwards. Besides, they also play vertical. That is why we did not pick Sardar. However, a squad of 24 players will be announced after the Commonwealth Games and Sardar will be in it.”

Sardar Singh. Image courtesy: @TheHockeyIndia

Sardar Singh. Image courtesy: @TheHockeyIndia

The big question here is what is the point in keeping Sardar in a list of 24 when he cannot play ‘vertical.’ But did Sardar ever play ‘vertical’? Or should he play ‘vertical’?

Worse, historically, we have never been good with handling players in the autumn of their careers. Take Dhanraj Pillay for example in his last Olympic Games at the  Athens Olympics in 2004. It was massive pressure that made coach Gerhard Rach bring on Pillay in India’s last match against South Korea when India was leading 5-2 for the 7th/8th classification match. Earlier, it was Mohammed Shahid or before that Prithipal Singh, highest scorer for India in the 1960, 64’ and 68’ Olympic Games. We leave it to the player to take a call.

In the 1968 Olympics, Prithipal Singh should have been the right choice for captain but the Indian Hockey Federation, who was always on a short fuse with Prithipal, decided that they will send two captains to the Olympic Games; Prithipal and Gurbux Singh. India ended up with a bronze as the team pulled in two different directions.

Hockey is a team sport, and unlike cricket, it is dictated on the field by the coach on whose ideas, design and tactics the team plays. In that respect, Sjoerd Marijne has every right to select his team. After all, it’s not the team captain but the coach who is accountable for a team’s success and failure. Within seconds, an opposition coach can see a weak area in your team and press, resulting in cards or PC’s or goals — it’s how you eventually counter the threat that makes you a great coach or not.

Different teams play with varying degrees of pace. Australia, Holland, England, Belgium can attack with increasing frequency. Germany can hold the ball for longer periods of time, till you drop dizzy from the rotations and Olympic Champions Argentina can kill the pace, make short passes and frustrate you. In the Olympic final, they led 3-1 and defended for almost two quarters before winning 4-2.

India, not at the Asia Cup in Dhaka, but at the HWL Finals decided to go for speed. They increased the work rate upfront and in the midfield. Marijne now wanted legs. Vision is always the coach’s domain. Creative players were, of course, needed but in a set up that played to pre-match designs, moving up fast became the need of the hour. Players like Sardar, actually he is the only one of his kind in the team who plays with a third eye and that makes him great, were suddenly dispensable. An Indian coach who didn’t want to be named said, “I can understand the need for speed. But when you meet opposition and they burst through faster than you and you get rattled, then you need a holding player, a free man, who can rotate the strike.”

Earlier, Sardar played as a central midfielder and then as a roving free man at the Dhaka Asia Cup. His moving up created two opportunities — either two or three players converged on him or they pushed back, giving him the space to hit those long slap shots that invariably found an Indian forward’s stick. By converging on him, space was equally created for other Indian players to feed off. Sardar’s dribbling skill usually fended off the opposition till the pass. Yes, he at times lost the pass creating a counter-attack. This eventually became his weakness in the new system that India was adopting.

Losing a pass in the midfield or in the opposition half was low risk but losing just ahead of India’s striking circle was high risk. Marijne didn’t want that. At the Azlan Shah, that is exactly what happened in the match against Ireland. India lost the ball or gave turn-overs more than 18 times. That resulted in pressure on the defence and the opposition countered getting penalty corners.

“We lost the ball too much,” said Marijne after the match. “Passes were wrong, trapping was poor, in all technically, we were not good today.” But to expect a single player to turn around the match or a tournament is equally not possible. If hockey is a team game, then players have to be at similar levels to achieve success. At the Azlan Shah, as Marijne said at a post-match press conference, “This team has hardly played with each other 3-4 times during training. Yet they are giving a tough competition to the others.” In other words, Sardar not making it to the CWG team had nothing to do with his Azlan Shah performance.

One of the world’s top coaches (he requested anonymity) watching the Azlan Shah said to justify Sardar’s potential, you need to give him freedom to play. As per his stats sheet, Sardar gave the ball away immediately to an Indian player, 72 percent of the time. Again, speed in releasing the ball was immediate and required according to team tactics. The only time Sardar probably took matters in his own hands was in the match against Malaysia when he took the ball from the Indian half into the midfield and while being tackled, shielded the ball and while falling passed it to Ramandeep who gave it to Sumit Kumar for an Indian goal.

There was a similar situation against Malaysia in the 6-2 victory at the Asia Cup in Dhaka. From the defensive zone, Sardar had the ball, passed it and then overlapped into the Malaysian striking circle to take a reverse hit while falling and scoring a spectacular goal. The joy of the Indian team was evident as they all fell over him.

But, yes, things have changed since then.

Marijne wants his midfielders to score – Manpreet, Chinglensana, Sumit and Vivek Prasad. According to hockey statistician, BG Joshi, Sardar has played 13 matches since Marijne took charge (Asia Cup and Azlan Shah) and scored once. Indian captain Manpreet Singh has played 21 matches (Asia Cup, HWL Finals and double-leg 4-Nation Tournament in New Zealand) but couldn’t score a goal. Chinglensana played 21 matches (same tournaments as Manpreet) and scored one goal.

The best stats belong to Vivek Sagar Prasad as he played 8 matches in the four-nation tournament in New Zealand and scored three goals. But the key question is that at the Azlan Shah, India played world champions Australia, Olympic champions Argentina, reigning Azlan Shah champions England and hosts Malaysia. At the 4-nation, the only team above the pecking order was Belgium, of course, the Olympic silver-medallist.

The quality at the Azlan Shah was far superior. If failure or success at Azlan Shah was the deciding factor for CWG, Hockey India has done well by picking those who did well in other tournaments. The ones who did well in Malaysia were Suraj Karkera and Ramandeep Singh. But it’s surprising that, probably, the most improved forward at the moment, Ramandeep gets dropped. India had 30 penalty corners in the tournament with four direct flicks to show for goals. But with Harmanpreet Singh and Rupinderpal Singh in the team that bit of stats shouldn’t worry the management. But if one of the stalwarts was there at the Azlan to fire in PCs, like Gonzalo Peillat did with 8 goals for Argentina, that fifth place could have been a final also.

Chairman of the Hockey India Selection Committee Harbinder Singh said it’s the coach’s prerogative to select the team. “Hockey has become a very fast sport today and looking at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the team has been selected,” said the three-time Olympic medallist. "We believe the younger players will raise their levels and be more proficient by the time the team settles down to a combination for the Olympic Games."

Speaking on the overall team selection, Moscow Olympic gold medallist and also assistant coach to Terry Walsh when India won the 2014 Asian Games under Sardar, MK Kaushik said, “The team that Hockey India has selected, I believe their decision is fine because it is important to perform in every tournament and CWG is an important tournament. I think the selection is fine by the foreign coaches and the selection committee.”

On Sardar being dropped because he didn’t fit in anymore, Kaushik, replied, “Sardar Singh is a world-class player and I think he should be in the probable list as the World Cup and the Asian Games are also important. Looking at his fitness, he can have a future in the game.” On being asked whether it was the end of the road for the former Indian captain, Kaushik said, “No, no one should think like that. He is a big fighter and has been performing well for India since a long time. I am sure he will regain his place once again.”

V Bhaskaran, captain of the 80’ Moscow Gold medal team, wasn’t too enchanted by method of selection. In fact, on a few details, he was downright scathing. “It saddens me that they are playing Sardar in a team (Azlan Shah Cup) he has no job playing, first of all. Will you send Lionel Messi to captain a team of youngsters? Will the Barcelona team allow Messi to skipper the development team? It’s disgusting that we allow this to happen in the name of development. This CWG team may end up winning gold. But this is no way to treat Sardar.”

Bhaskaran said that comparing Sardar to players who have played one tournament is a joke. “In four months, these guys (coaches) know about Indian hockey? These youngsters haven’t even played domestic hockey for a year. Also, why wasn't Sreejesh played at the Azlan Shah? After his injury, he has only played one tournament so why didn’t you test him at the Azlan Shah when the Australians and Argentines were playing their best goalkeepers?” the former captain asked.

Bhaskaran also questioned the expectation that Sardar alone could take the team to the Azlan Shah final? “Where was the supporting cast for Sardar? I completely disagree with the way things are being done. That man has lost his confidence. You want to drop him, say thank you and move on. Why humiliate him?”

“Sardar is a player who loves to play with the ball and he wants the opposition to mark him. In Rio, you played him as inside forward, then a free man and now a midfielder. Make up your mind.”

Yet, in sport, nothing comes on a platter. With Tiger Woods making a tremendous comeback and the golfing world all excited again, Wayne Gretzky, probably the greatest ice-hockey player, said about Tiger, in a recent NYT interview, “The good Lord blessed us with talent, but to be greatest, you have to outwork everyone too.”

Maybe, in Indian hockey, coaches are susceptible to the “Rosenthal Effect.” Simply put, if a coach believes an athlete is great, he or she will be raising their levels at the end of the season. And, if a coach doesn’t believe an athlete is good, he or she will be worse off at the end of the season.

Time for Sardar to outwork everyone.

Published Date: Mar 14, 2018 21:49 PM | Updated Date: Mar 17, 2018 11:15 AM

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