Champions Trophy Hockey 2018: Sardar Singh's unflinching determination during long career makes him an all-time great
It’s also true that if India had made it to the CWG final, Sardar Singh's career would have been done and dusted. From the ashes of India’s failure came Sardar's resurrection.
On 21 March, the Indian hockey team for the Commonwealth Games (CWG) had been announced. Besides the usual suspects, there were a couple of newcomers – Dilpreet Singh and Vivek Prasad. But most news establishments ran with the headline: Sardar Singh axed as Hockey India announce 18-member squad. The Times of India headlined: Sardar, Ramandeep dropped for varied reasons. The Indian Express wrote: Old hand Sardar Singh loses out to fresh legs in hockey squad for CWG 2018 while The Hindustan Times said Sardar Singh axed, goalkeeper PR Sreejesh makes comeback.
There were no questions asked. And neither were there any queries when Sardar was sent as captain to the 2018 Sultan Azlan Shah, captaining a team destined and doomed to fail. Almost half the senior team had been rested. It was taken for granted that a 31-year-old had developed the legs of a 60-year-old. It was also conveniently forgotten that midfielders, creators in sport, also used their Cerebellum or brain as we call it; legs are just one part of a hockey player’s physicality. Otherwise, most sprinters could easily have second careers as field hockey players.
Something else also happened on 21 March. Sardar congratulated the team going to the Gold Coast and put a call through to the Grand Hyatt in Chandigarh. He confirmed that his membership was still intact and then said he would be using the gym for an extra hour every day and the pool in the morning and evening. Sitting on 298 matches after the 4-1 win over Ireland at the Azlan Shah tournament, he wanted to reach 300 Internationals; the burning desire, however, was to make a comeback, prove the detractors wrong and tell the critics he wasn’t finished as a player. “I knew that I could play and contribute,” he said a few days after the CWG team was announced. “But I am perplexed and very confused why I have been left out.”
Sardar spent time with his family and friends. Some did believe he won’t make it back to the Indian team. Some asked him to announce his retirement. Reporters wanted reactions. Sardar politely refused. He started doing yoga, swam and channelized any negative thoughts pumping iron, swimming extra laps and drinking his favourite lemon tea with honey. Even though he knew it was tough, he kept his dream alive.
At the CWG the young legs ran faster. Moving up and down the pitch was great. Switching between positions happened. But little less. Goals dried up. Young legs and minds couldn’t coordinate play the way, the Coach, Sjoerd Marijne wanted it. By the time India played the semi-finals and then finished fourth, losing out on the bronze medal match; it was a foregone conclusion that something had misfired. Sardar didn’t watch all the games. “Too painful,” he said. During the matches, he either went out or hit the gym. Too many outside, it was quite clear that the team lacked clarity and experience.
On 20 April, Hockey India announced a list of 55. Sardar was in the mix. Speaking to The Indian Express, Sardar said, “I have been working on my fitness. I was regularly hitting the gym during the lay off period. I think it was a much needed break for me to regroup myself. As for now I am just hoping to make it back to the camp.”
David John, India’s high performance director also said, “The selection was based on form (for the CWG). They played two of the previous four tournaments. We used those tournaments as a guide to see which was our best and inform team.”
It’s also true that if India had made it to the CWG final, Sardar’s career would have been done and dusted. From the ashes of India’s failure came Sardar's resurrection.
The former Indian captain, widely regarded as one of country's hockey greats, is not too complex a character. In fact, apart from his brother Didar Singh, not many have unravelled that personality. To many, it was a surprise that he didn’t criticise the coaches or Hockey India for being so unceremoniously dropped. Nothing on fading skills but simply ageing legs. Sardar spoke about everything from his training regime to trying to understand the reasons for being dropped. But even if he felt that the decision was biased and had nothing to do with his skills or fitness, he rarely spoke or reacted. Just nods and ‘hanji paji.’
Much is made of the meeting he had with the strong-man of Indian hockey and the FIH president Narinder Batra. Apparently he stated his point of view. In modern sport, arguments and opinions are on one side but what picks you is performance. In the camp, Harendra Singh saw enough to select Sardar once again for the national team thus setting up the 299th and 300th international match that Sardar played at Breda in the Champions Trophy.
It is also fate that his 300th came against the Olympic champions Argentina and the 2-1 win was the icing on the cake. Two months back, a conversation on his comeback would have looked as bleak someone predicting Panama to win the FIFA World Cup.
Adversity in life may be a thing of the past for Sardar. But for someone who ran alongside sugarcane trolleys near his village just ahead of Sirsa, pulling out a few so that he could take them home; his hockey shoes as a youngster were sewed almost every second day by the local ‘mochi’ till the man gave up as there was no way to hold the canvas together, determination becomes a way of life. Talent was never taken for granted. The swish of the stick from left to right; that uncanny insight; the 360 degree vision; the heart that pumps like a marriage hall generator; the change of pace and direction of the ball may have reduced in some form or the other. And their replacements are experience, calmness, and reduced risk-taking, holding the ball, waiting for the opportunity and playing in a non-designated zone or area. In other words, he holds the team whenever he is on the pitch, running into empty spaces to free up the play if a teammate is stuck with two opponents on him. His body has paid a price for those 300 Internationals, but Harendra at the moment, is ensuring that the team is feeding off his experience and the youngsters are enjoying his mentorship.
In the match against Argentina in the 2nd quarter, Vivek ran into an empty space on the right and was confronted with two Argentines and no space to release. Sardar, on the left, realised that a second earlier and created space by running into another pocket giving another channel for Vivek to release the ball. Two things happened: Vivek understood the importance of keeping a channel open and also that while moving up, a 180 degree vision is more paying than a narrower 90 degree.
To imagine that Sardar would play like the man who pillaged teams between 2010 and 2014 is unfair, unrealistic and outrightly naive. Sardar’s role in the team is bigger. He is not there to run and pick up every ball. He lends that shoulder on which the player leans. He creates pockets of play, which in a sport as fast as hockey, you don’t realise till you keep following him. In the match against Pakistan, Harmanpreet Singh was tackled in the midfield and the ball taken. The counter was set up but a second before Sardar was running in behind Harmanpreet just in case he lost the ball.
Ten yards into Indian Territory, Sardar snatched the ball back and prevented a counter and a possible threat to the Indian goal.
For a man who was the youngest ever to captain India at the age of 21 at the 2008 Azlan Shah Cup, the last few years have been nothing but tumultuous. Since winning the 2014 Asian Games Gold, life has been turned inside out by allegations of rape (the case is still on though Punjab Police say there is no evidence), losing the captaincy just before the 2016 Rio Olympics, court cases that took a toll in 2017 and a police station appearance in Leeds to be questioned by the Yorkshire Police; coming a day after India thrashed Pakistan 7-1 at the World Hockey League in London. The worse seems to be over.
Playing the Champions Trophy here in Breda, nothing would be better for the team and Sardar that they climb onto the podium. But a medal finish will not remove the sword hanging over Sardar’s head. His aspires to play the 2018 World Cup in Bhubaneswar along with the Asian Games in Jakarta. But that strictly remains with just two people – one Sardar and the other Harendra. If Sardar keeps performing, picking him will not be a problem. Harendra may seem emotional on the outside but inside he is a man dedicated to just one cause – the Team. Nothing will disturb the fact that he will train and pick players on the ability to deliver. No personal biases or anything else will cloud his judgement.
Popularity wise, he is still mobbed by Indian fans. At the Bangalore airport before the team left for the Champions Trophy, they ran to him for selfies and here in Breda, it takes a while before he can get past the crowds to reach the post-match interview area.
On the team board, on the day of his 300th match, Harendra wrote, “The Lion will hunt today.” At the mixed zone, when a reporter asked him about Sardar’s comeback, he said, grinning from ear to ear: “He is a Lion. You cannot cage the Lion.” Before the match, the entire Indian team knelt down when Sardar entered the ground; a grand gesture for a great player.
Former Indian captain Ashok Kumar, who after Sardar was dropped from the CWG team had predicted that ‘I am sure Sardar will make his way back’ said after the match against Pakistan, “Harendra knows what his qualities are and what standard he plays at. He is the world’s best and most dependable player. His passes, distribution, his assessment and anticipation, there is no answer to that. He is one of the best.”
On the eve of the 300th, Harendra said, “I think for everyone he is special. There is so much physical demand in modern hockey and any player who crosses 200 is a legend for me. And we play continuous hockey. And the physical demand, the psychological demand and motivational demand when a player crosses 300, it is a big milestone. My salute goes to Sardar; he kept pushing himself and kept getting his space. And at the same time the entire country must be proud that one of the player’s is going to play 300th match.”
After Dilip Tirkey (412), Dhanraj Pillay (339), Baljit Singh Dhillon (327), Pargat Singh (317) and Mukesh Kumar (307), Sardar is the sixth player to enter the 300 club. In the end, he only had one thing to say about the 300th – “I would say that I am lucky to play 300 matches for the country.”
‘400?’ Sardar laughs with that look where his eyes stretch away into his scalp. At the moment he is enjoying himself. He has come through a tough period, assailed by self-doubts. That 300-plus-international ravaged body would rather take it day by day.
"There is enough competition within the core group to make the final squad. I understand this Olympics may be very different from the previous ones. But representing India at the Olympics Games is every sports person's dream," Goyal was quoted as saying by a Hockey India release.
The matches were postponed as Argentina could not arrange for an alternative route after travel restrictions were put in place in the Netherlands via which they were to reach Belgium.
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