The humidity at the Kuantan Hockey Stadium was close to 88 percent. Sardar Singh, clutching his man of the match trophy, was replying to a few questions from a Malaysian TV network. Even though the match had been over some 45 minutes back, sweat was pouring down his body, his blue India shirt stuck to his chiseled frame. Two quick answers and Sardar ran back for the team picture with the trophy. Even though his teammates tried to push him to the front, the former Indian captain politely refused, preferring to stand at the back. In some team pictures, even during the Rio Olympics, Sardar was usually hidden behind a few players. It’s a change of character. Of course, Sardar was never one to show much emotion, but this change signifies a shift in personality.
Watching him along with countless millions, in the stadium and on TV, was Terry Walsh, his former coach and now Technical Director, Malaysia. “The change is visible,” observed Walsh. “All the stuff that he had gone through in the last six months would have an effect on him. He’s human after all.”
It’s not difficult to raise an eyebrow as to why the focus was on Sardar after India won the Asian Champions Trophy beating Pakistan and he won the player-of-the-match trophy in the final. “Exactly,” says Walsh. “Everything looks fine but a lot of stuff that players go through just gets papered over. And it’s not just Sardar. Even Sreejesh will feel the effects of captaincy. Remember, the expectations are huge and we sometimes sitting on the outside don’t realise it.”
It’s hard not to be cynical about yourself when you are going through a sexual harassment case; have lost captaincy for the Olympics; are no longer a central midfield creator but a forward, expected to score goals in the Olympics; and no more the spokesperson for the team. In our environment, when Sardar walks into a gathering or a hotel lobby, it’s not too difficult to assess what people must be whispering amongst themselves. It takes time to emerge from it. The man or the player in question also takes a battering. Before going to Kuantan, Sardar only had one wish. “I need to be supremely fit,” he said. “I want to play. That’s the only thing I know and understand. The rest I have to deal with.”
In the matches before the semis against Korea and the final against Pakistan, Sardar looked like a shadow of his past. He seemed slow, passes going off the zone, the fall back in defending exposing him against some faster oppositions. And then in the group match against Malaysia, Roelant Oltmans put him in a defending role, virtually playing right back. But with his skills, not many players approach Sardar, afraid of getting beaten on the dribble, so space opened up for the former Indian captain and he played with some measure of confidence till the semis and the final happened.
“The expectation from him is huge,” explains Terry. “Everybody thinks he will keep playing at a high level. But that’s not possible. Even the media is quick in being critical if the player concerned is Sardar; also because he has been performing. But that takes a major toll. Without the captaincy, he should play without any burdens.”
In the field, when on a song, Sardar appears unburdened. He is fluid, running past opponents as if they are whiffs of smoke, gliding past out-stretched sticks, his legendary vision picking up players on either flanks and the dribble that makes the ball seem like a puck on ice.
“We sometimes seem to forget that Sardar has been playing for more than a decade,” says Oltmans, India’s High-Performance Director who will be the new National Chief Coach from January 2017 on a new four-year contract. “His has been an extraordinary journey. Do you think we would have won the Asian Champions Trophy without that equaliser that he created in the semifinal? That was a moment of sheer magic.”
In the semifinal, India took the lead through a Talwinder Singh strike in the 15th minute but the Koreans came back strongly through Seo In-Woo in the 21st minute and then Yang Ji-Hun gave them the lead off a stroke in the 53rd. With just seven minutes left in the match, it seemed that Korea’s defence would hold out. But with five minutes left, Sardar who had moved up on the left flank, surprisingly entered the Korean striking circle, dribbled past three Koreans, like running past inert statutes, and ensured that his pass to Ramandeep got the equaliser for the match to go to a shoot-out. Sardar was the first to take the shoot-out and unlike most, did a deft dribble to the left and a back hand tap saw the ball in goal.
“I do understand what he has gone through,” says Oltmans. “But as a coach I know how to handle the situation. I speak to the players individually and I also speak to him. We have to understand he is not the same in age. And that is one reason why I am reducing his time on the field so he is more effective. He plays around six minutes per quarter. And that could be shorter if the match is too intense.”
Oltmans says he normally reads in the media if something comes up about Sardar’s sexual harassment case. “Otherwise, I deal with the players on what is happening. Keep them in the present and that they remain focused.”
Anuradha Solanki, Sports Authority of India’s junior scientific officer, a sports psychologist in normal terms, for the last 23 years believes it is up to the player to ask for help. “Yes, you can sometimes see the sign that events outside hockey may have affected him and sometimes they don’t accept that. But if the team believes and the coach thinks that sitting with a psychologist will help a player get past certain hurdles in his mind, then, of course, he should ask for help.”
Anuradha thinks most players don’t accept changes happening in the way they are perceived in society at large. “His positive self-image may have got a setback, in the way Sardar looks at himself,” says Anuradha. “He comes from a humble background and sometimes such players go into their shells. And performance does get affected. It’s completely up to the coach of the team to be able to get into his head and the fact that he needs a little help in throwing off some baggage.”
Sardar’s performance at the Rio Olympics definitely dipped. “It’s very difficult to change your position all of a sudden,” says Terry. “But I admire Oltmans as it was a tough decision.”
But the former Indian coach says it does affect a player and that’s when a psychologist can have a great effect. “Everyone has their perception,” says Terry. “But after all these years, Sardar must have expectations from himself. Changing a player from right midfield to left midfield has substantial repercussions. And he was playing as a forward.”
Oltmans is confident about Sardar as a player. “I think he is eager to perform,” the Dutchman says. “But, yes, we can’t predict the future as such for any player. Did anyone predict Rooney would struggle all of a sudden and that Ronaldo would also find it difficult to score goals?”
Walking back to the dressing room after the Champions Trophy win, Sardar says he is looking forward to playing for at least two years. “I don’t think too much anymore,” he says. “There will be bad and good days. I have to be fit and at the moment if I can contribute to the team, that would be great. I am not looking beyond the 2018 World Cup.”
More than the skills here, it’s the thermodynamics of the mind that Sardar battles. Or as Terry says, “Keep him relaxed, allow him to play the game.” Maybe here too, Sardar’s hockey which is painless and his skills that still mesmerise, will win the battle over his mind.