By Sundeep Misra
This is not Sardar Singh’s Concussion crisis. This is bigger than that. Across the internet, in the world of Twitter, in the incessant backroom chatter of Facebook, billions of miles of social media highways, Sardar Singh is now coloured.
So is Ashpal Kaur Bhogal, who has accused the Indian hockey captain of being a sexual predator. In the days, to come it will play like a film, the modern day ‘Insaf Ka Tarazu’.
Don’t be surprised if a producer in Mumbai has already commissioned ‘Sardar ki Asli Kahani.’ In our times, that is the price you pay and I speak for both – Sardar Singh and his now ‘former’ girlfriend Ash.
At the risk of being termed insensitive towards a woman, sitting thousands of miles away in the United Kingdom, there is another crisis looming – the 2016 Rio Olympics. Honestly, it would be the last thing on Sardar’s mind right now.
And in a nation obsessed with cricket and ‘suffering’ from the likely impact of Virat Kohli’s alleged break-up with girlfriend, actor Anuskha Sharma, ahead of the T20 World Cup the Olympics seem as distant as the newly discovered galaxy Cosmos Redshift 7.
Cynicism aside, the Olympics are real and the man fretting right now would be Roelant Oltmans, the Indian coach.
You might not get a word out of him but believe me, his mind would be asking questions about Sardar’s mental strength to get past all this and start focusing on the Olympics.
Playing the Olympics is not the real deal. It’s the run-up to the Games that squeezes every bit of juice out of an athlete. The build-up is crucial and that is exactly what would be worrying Roelant.
Sardar is not just another player; He is an icon in this Indian line-up and would be leading the side in Rio. Captaincy has a different pressure point. Also in the lead-up, every story would mention the ‘scandal’ and the pressure on the Indian captain will be humongous.
Four years back, India lost the 11-12th classification match to South Africa. As the players picked up their kits and left for the bus, Sardar sat on the bench, sobbing his heart out with the then Indian coach Michael Nobbs consoling him.
Sardar wouldn’t want that result to be repeated. Nobody wants to finish 12th in two consecutive Olympics!!
Cedric D’Souza, the 1994 World Cup coach, feels the pressure has already multiplied. “The scandal has already taken mind space,” he feels.
“Mentally, you start thinking about the Olympics and now for the next two months, Sardar will be weighed down with giving clarifications and every interview will start with the story.”
Cedric coached Sardar for two seasons at Delhi Waveriders. But the coach who took India to a 5th place finish in Sydney in 1994 thinks that mentally Sardar can cope with it.
Being the Indian captain, you are already facing a barrage of questions most of which are laced with a lot of negativity. “Yes, he can cope, “says Cedric. “But the best answers would be provided by a team psychologist who would have access to Sardar’s mind.
Cedric’s other worry is that the Indian team has been on an upward curve since the 2014 World Cup in Holland. It culminated with the bronze medal in Raipur at the finals of the World Hockey League.
It was India’s first podium finish in 33 years at the world level.
“I don’t know how much of this would affect the progress, “says Cedric. “But they should ensure that it doesn’t impact the team.”
On an individual basis, players have been impacted by scandals of this nature. Look at Tiger Woods!
In the press conference following the controversy, Sardar didn’t deny a relationship. But he did deny that there was an abortion.
Now if Ashpal comes up with evidence, the story will take another turn and social media will have its own ‘Olympics’.
Jude Felix, former Indian captain, assistant coach to the team at the Asian Games in Incheon and the semi-finals of the World Hockey League in Antwerp, says it comes down to the individual’s mindset.
“In the 1990 World Cup, we were having a tough time playing in Lahore as the crowd would abuse and throw stuff at us but once I stepped onto the ground, I shut the noise out and played a decent World Cup,” he explained.
India finished 9th in Lahore, a World Cup where training sessions were held in the carpeted corridors of the hotel as it was too dangerous to play and practice in the stadium.
Felix is, however, confident about Sardar. He feels he has the mental stability and would need to ‘shut it out’ and carry on. “But if he needs help, he should ask for it.”
Mrinal Chakraborty, a Kolkata-based sports psychologist, is helping the junior hockey team for the upcoming World Cup.
“I think this would affect anyone,” says Mrinal. “And knowing that the Olympics are round the corner, it translates into anxiety.”
Mrinal, still, is confident that Sardar would ease past it. “You have to understand that he is not a rookie,” he says. “But at the same time, he is crucial to the team. He is after all the captain on whom the team depends. And we need to understand that performance = potential - interference.”
Mrinal’s advice is simple – If Sardar needs help, Hockey India should ensure he gets it because on the surface, you might see and feel everything is okay. But below the surface is where the player battles his inner demons.
Terry Walsh, who was at the helm during the 2014 World Cup and also the coach when India won the Asian Games gold in Incheon, said he wasn’t reading the internet for stories on Sardar.
The Malaysia coach’s first reaction was of shock. While clarifying that he has no right to speak on the issue since he is no longer the Indian coach, he did, however, admit that it might get difficult for the captain to clear the cobwebs.
Sardar is no Tiger Woods — allegations, situations, sport, almost everything is different. Both personalities are different. But the Indian hockey team revolves around Sardar. If the captain is distracted, the team won’t remain immune to it.
There would also be a huge swing in the way fans view Sardar. Just a couple of days ago, he was the player with a master dribble, a vision that could spot an Indian stick in a crowd of defenders, a heart that could pump like a generator, a player on whom you could rely on to create ‘brilliant’ moments. Today, he stands tainted. In the world of internet, the stain of being a ‘sexual predator’ remains longer than your reputation as a player.
Sundeep Misra is a sportswriter, author, filmmaker and has covered 7 Hockey World Cups