“Trust me,” said Dhanraj Pillay. “The best players dream of being an Olympic captain.”
This was right after the ‘then’ Indian Hockey Federation had announced the 2000 Sydney Olympics team. Pillay expected to lead the outfit to Australia. After all, he was the man who led the team to a gold medal at the 1998 Asian Games. But when Ramandeep Singh’s name was announced, there was considerable shock. KPS Gill, the President of the IHF said, “Look at the team, not the captain. In hockey, it’s the coach who takes the decision.”
Ahead of the 2016 Rio Olympics, there is a similar situation with Sreejesh Ravindran replacing Sardar Singh as captain. Debates can keep raging, opinions remain divided and polls may favour Sreejesh, but the mind-numbing shock that comes when captaincy is denied is a story that can run into pages. In the 1960’s, 1970’s and till almost the early 1990’s, captaincy was almost like a gold medal; the back room politicsand midnight calls from ministries decided the ultimate prize. In his own way, Dilip Tirkey when appointed captain ahead of the 2004 Athens Olympics, killed the chase that went with the captaincy. His quiet demeanour brought about stability, and once for all killed the idea that ‘aggression’ was needed to be captain or as his former coach Bhaskaran said, ‘the soft boy has finally become the captain.’
With less than a month left for the Rio Olympics, Hockey India's change in guard is surprising, but not shocking. Sardar has not been axed from the captaincy. But another player, in this case, the team goalkeeper, Sreejesh appointed. But some waters run deep. And in this case, Sardar will take time to get over this mind numbing blow. After India had won the gold medal at the Incheon Asian Games in 2014, a happy, satisfied Indian captain Sardar Singh said this about the future, especially Rio, since India was the first team to qualify: “Now I want to lead the Indian team to a very good performance in Rio.”
It won’t be so easy to forget that a dream he nurtured since the time he was passed over in 2012 for the London Olympics, now lies shattered. It will take some time to sink in. It’s difficult to read the man’s emotions. Yet, Sardar will pick up the pieces. And the only thing he will turn to are his skills, to be able to put in a performance that will make him forget that he is not the ‘Olympic Captain.’
Former Indian coach and a man who has coached Sardar at Delhi Waveriders, Cedric D’Souza, said, “Those who are qualified and experienced enough will be able to help Sardar sidestep or put those issues aside whilst at the same time maintain his focus on what his strengths are thereby bringing out the best from him.”
Cedric, however, believes that Sardar has said he is totally focused on Rio and won't let any external issues derail him and that he hopes ‘Sardar can really walk the talk.’
But is it just about the captaincy? Or are we looking at Sreejesh vs Sardar as a battle of two ambitious players entwined together by fate and circumstances, who have somehow in a very Hindi film-like manner been pitched against each other despite being in the same team.
Even when India won the gold at the 2014 Asian Games, breaking a drought of 16 years, it was Sreejesh who saved two of Pakistan’s four penalty attempts. The man from Kerala was the star of the final. And it is to his credit that his form has been most consistent since the 2014 World Cup.
Sardar’s hasn’t dipped either. But a personal issue where he has been accused by a British national of alleged rape and breaking ‘promises’ of marriage have taken their toll. The former Indian captain has been criss-crossing Delhi, Haryana and Punjab with his lawyers trying to convince law authorities that he hasn’t broken any laws. The British national, Ashpal Kaur Bhogal, a former British junior hockey player, is hell bent on taking Sardar to the cleaners. In all, a scenario, which may have resulted in Hockey India deciding that Sreejesh was best suited at the moment to lead India. Sardar wasn’t even in London when the Champions Trophy was held. Even he, in his wildest dreams, would never have imagined that India will reach the final and play like a team possessed. Neither did Sreejesh, but great goalkeeping and the silver medal were all right there at the right time for Sardar to be by-passed and Sreejesh to be the Indian Olympic captain for posterity.
It is a wise decision. Nobody would want Sardar to appear in a press conference and instead of being asked the reasons for a win, asked how does he cope with an alleged rape case hanging over him.
But there are critics too. Ashok Kumar, one of the classiest players of the World Cup winning team of 1975 said, “Sardar is good player and he should lead the team as he is the backbone. A goalkeeper can't control the team so well. There is no better leader than Sardar at the moment.”
However, Cedric maintains, “We are all human and pressure does affect us in some way or the other. How we deal with adversity and overcome it whilst at the same time still perform to expectations depends on each individual's capacity. So keeping in mind the stuff, Sardar has going on in his personal life I think it is a wise move.”
Cedric was at the Champions Trophy in his role as a commentator and saw the team, but does he believe a few reports that said that without Sardar, the team played better and maintained a higher work rate and pace? “It's easier said than done,” says Cedric. “Every tournament and every game is different, comparisons cannot really be made. All I can say with full conviction was the Indian team played superbly as a team.”
Continuing what he saw in London, Cedric says, “Sreejesh leads by example and is like bubbly champagne, always charged up and through his infectious behaviour and confidence between the posts comes as a great motivator. So, yes as a captain I feel it will help the team.”
The Olympics traditionally are a huge pressure point – eight gold medals won in an era which most of the present generation has no real connect with and sometimes cannot comprehend why hockey doesn’t anymore win at the Olympic level. History is a factor , an Olympic medal is coveted and the players play under massive pressure. So the change in captaincy has either come as a master stroke or a huge error in timing.
Mohammed Riaz, a member of the 2000 Sydney Olympics team still gets nightmares about it. India drew with Poland with 55 seconds to go in the match and lost a semi-final playoff against Pakistan. “The pressure is so much that sometimes you cannot breathe,” he says. “It is then the management, coach and the captain who play a vital role.”
On the timing of the change, Cedric’s says, “The Olympics is the pinnacle of our sport filled with expectations which puts incredible pressure on the lads. Having leaders to take on this role is vital. So there will be some who will advocate why the change now why not earlier. However for me it's not about when but about what's best to derive a top class performance from the team.”
For Sreejesh, it’s no added responsibility. The truth is that he is a happy man, and that is infectious. Reporters of the sport will always endorse the view that rare is an answer from Sreejesh that is not accompanied by a smile or a laugh. After winning the Incheon Asian Games gold, it was difficult to get Sreejesh to answer – so excited was he that his entire being wanted to be involved in the answer and give multiple reasons in a single line. Over the last two years, he has become vocal and is constantly egging on the team from his goalkeeper’s position. But he was surprised to be named captain. “It’s a surprise, definitely. I never expected to be the captain at the Olympics. But also understand that in our team we have four vice-captains. And Sardar is one of them, including Sunil, Raghunath, and Manpreet. They are all there to support the team.”
Sreejesh does believe that the world will see a different Sardar on the field. “We will try and rotate the captaincy. So, everyone gets the responsibility. It will give players a free mind, to perform their best on the field and I think this time you can see a different Sardar on the field.”
Indian coach Roelant Oltmans is sure about his former captain. “"By changing the captain I believe Sardar will play a much better Olympic Games. Sardar took the decision (of him being removed from captaincy) very sportingly. He understands what's required from him.”
Sardar, as usual, was composed after the announcement that virtually wrecked his dreams of being captain. The smile was there. “The best thing would be to get a medal in Rio,” he says. “That is the most important thing. And I think, everyone is a captain in the team. And this is the time to be more focused and stay together.”
For the fans, the ring side viewers of the episode Sreejesh vs Sardar – the battle for captaincy – it would be interesting to see an aggressive Sreejesh thwart every attempt, every stroke, pads like an extension of his personality keeping the top nations away. While Sardar, with his gazelle like movements, as if skating on ice, body feints, dodges, the stick-swerve dribble, will serve up skills like an accomplished chef. As for the team, driven by the ambitions of both players, will hopefully makes it to the podium.