On a lazy Saturday morning, while the rest of Bengaluru is still rubbing the sleep out of its eyes, the blue hockey turf at the Sports Authority of India's (SAI) campus bustles with activity.
The blue turf, tucked away inside the SAI's Bengaluru campus and cloistered away from the rest of the city by a thicket of trees, is a refuge of the Indian men's hockey team. In fact, it is more than just a refuge. For most days of the year, this is home.
Saturday, though, isn't like most days of the year. It's the last day of training before the team takes flight for Jakarta for the Asian Games, where the team is to take its first crack at sealing qualification for the Tokyo Olympics. But the road to that podium is being paved here, on a gloomy Saturday morning in Bengaluru.
There's lots to do: defensive combinations to be perfected, penalty corner routines to be honed, and match fitness to be sharpened.
As on most days, training starts at 9 am. But the team's on the turf by 8.50, led by the charismatic coach Harendra Singh, who turns up riding a jet-black Royal Enfield Himalayan with sunglasses on, despite the absolute lack of sunshine. Harendra's deputy, Chris Ciriello — who helped the Australian team to multiple victories over India as a player and is currently tasked with helping the Indians fine-tune their penalty corners among other things — comes astride a sports bicycle.
And then there's PR Sreejesh, India’s first-choice goalkeeper, who has started the session by leading the team’s other two goalkeepers into a rather unusual warm-up routine, complete with music and dancing.
The last session and We done it our way ..... Goalkeepers are amazing people !! Now Asia games , #goalkeepers #hockey #brothers ,@TheHockeyIndia @FIH_Hockey @obohockey @asiangames2018 pic.twitter.com/3Dfa6pWDkQ
— sreejesh p r (@16Sreejesh) August 11, 2018
Yet, nothing draws the eye more than the sight of a man in his 30s, who is holding court in the centre of the blue turf. Sardar Singh is sprawled on a yoga mat surrounded by a bunch of chirpy young teammates, yet he resembles an island onto himself, cut off from the chatter around him.
In Indian hockey, where change tends to come without warning, Sardar, along with Sreejesh, has been a rare constant since they both made their debuts in 2006.
At a boisterous training session being held under a canopy of menacing clouds, Sreejesh flits around. Joking with the youngsters, doing a deliberate slow-motion jog for the sake of the team photographer. Carefree.
Sardar, meanwhile, is a brooding presence. Intense, almost lost within thought. From the moment he gets on the pitch for the training session, Sardar puts his head down, and goes to work. Running as hard as anyone else, focusing more intensely than most.
"Training main sabhi serious rehte hain," says Dilpreet Singh, one of the team's youngest players. "Par Sardar paaji sabse jyaada serious rehte hain. (Everyone's serious during training sessions. But Sardar's more serious than all of us.)"
The puny lad who became a giant
The Sardar Singh of 2018 is not the Sardar Singh of the early 2000s when he was trying to stake his claim for a spot in the Indian team. Scrawny is not a word you would associate with the Sardar Singh of 2018, a man whose veins boldly jut out of every sinew and who is usually among the team's top performers in the yo-yo test.
Yet, this was the earliest recollection of Sardar that Viren Rasquinha, back then an integral part of the national team, has.
Rasquinha remembers the skinny Sardar taking the pitch for the Namdharis during a practice match against India in 2005, when Sardar's elder brother Didar used to play for the national team. Despite his scrawny appearance, Rasquinha remembers being 'blown away' by Sardar. So good was his performance that Rasquinha was moved to boldly predict to his teammates that Sardar would play for India for many years to come.
"I'm glad he's justified my bold claim," says Rasquinha, who was a hockey expert for Sony Pictures Networks during the recently concluded Asian Games.
When Sardar made his debut for the senior team at the 2006 Commonwealth Games, Clarence Lobo was one of the coaches with the team.
"I remember him as a puny guy when I first saw him. Absolutely no meat on him!" says Lobo. "But he worked really hard on himself, ate right, worked on his physique and became what he did.
"Modern hockey is all about power, and his body structure put him above the rest."
At one of his earliest national team camps, the puny Sardar left a lasting mark on Lobo.
"One day after finishing a training session at Balewadi in Pune around 5.45, I came back to finish some paperwork around 7. To my surprise, the lights at the stadium were still on. I walked in to the ground to see two boys, Sardar and Rupinder Pal Singh, still training. All of their teammates had long gone back to their rooms. But these two boys were practising their slap shots and their scoops! Basics! That's what they were fine-tuning! That's what makes a player stand out. Every team I coach, I tell about Sardar," he gushes.
Lobo adds that what also stood out for him about Sardar was the fact that despite him being really young, his confidence was sky-high. Current men's team coach Harendra, however, remembers a slightly different Sardar.
"During a four-nations tournament in Lahore (a junior men's tournament), I had given him his debut. But he soon came to me and told me 'coach saab, mujhse nahi khela jaayega. Mujhe team se bahaar nikaal do. (I won't be able to do this. Please remove me from the team),'" Harendra recollects.
The issue was simple.
"He didn't understand modern hockey at that time. He wanted to play the same old Indian style. But when he played against the Japanese he saw them haring around the pitch. He couldn't do it himself. That's why he asked me to bench him. But I refused and told him that one day, if he wants to play for the country at the senior level, he needs to play exactly like this."
Later after a match against Pakistan, Harendra took him aside and told him, "You're going to become a great player. But you only have to believe yourself."
"Since that time, Sardar's belief in himself has been so strong that it propelled his career to the orbit. He's one of the biggest legends of Indian hockey at the moment. Playing over 300 matches is not a joke," Harendra says.
The Indian team's man friday
Barring as a goalkeeper, there are few positions on the pitch that Sardar hasn't played.
As coaches have come and gone from the hotseat that has come to represent the national men's coach's role, Sardar's position in the pitch too has changed.
"He's evolved so much since making his debut. From being a forward to a defender to a midfielder...he's played across the pitch. The best thing about Sardar is that he is capable of playing different roles," says Rasquinha.
At the recent Asian Games, he was back in a familiar role as the midfielder, partnering Manpreet Singh. Their link-up play in the earlier matches season was spectacular, with the youngster doing all the running while Sardar used his vision to play decisive passes.
"When I broke into the team in 2006, I started as a right link. After that the coaches which came saw that my long passes were good and I could guide players playing ahead of me really well. So coaches started playing me at the centre of the turf. Then during a 2015 Hockey World League Final match in Raipur, we were losing, so coach Roelant Oltmans asked me to play at centre forward. I pressed the defenders really well, so I continued playing in that position for the Rio Olympics. So, I guess I have played in every position across the turf depending on what the requirement of the coach was," Sardar tells Firstpost before the national team left for the Asian Games. "I did whatever was required of me. Earlier, it used to be good. The team required me."
Sardar says this without any expression on his face. Yet, his tone gives away the resentment inside. Just a few months ago, he had been dropped from the national team. Yet, when Harendra, the man who gave Sardar his first break in the junior national team, took over the reins of the national team, Sardar found himself making a comeback even he would not have imagined.
First guy in, last guy out
The first thing most players and coaches are likely to tell you about Sardar, is his habit to be the first guy on the pitch for training sessions and the last guy to leave.
"We would usually be the first guys to walk in for a training session and the last guys leaving. Just like I would try perfecting my penalty corner variations, he would work on his won skills. Again, and again. Over and over," says Sandeep Singh, who roomed with Sardar for nearly eight years during his India stint. Sandeep, who was also a hockey expert with Sony Pictures Networks during the Asian Games, paints a picture of Sardar with one line. "He's a very sweet boy," he says.
"He's always been disciplined and his work ethic has been outstanding," adds Rasquinha.
Sardar, on his part, has a simple rationale for his work ethic.
"As a senior, it's our responsibility to guide the younger lot. The way we behave on the pitch, the youngsters will also emulate. Junior players will never take responsibility by themselves. It's the seniors who have to set an example," Sardar says.
After he announced his retirement, the national team now needs to find an able replacement to fill in his boots. It will not be easy.
"Sardar was special. His vision made him a great! He would pass in such a way that the ball would split the defence but the teammate would get it at a pace he could comfortably trap at!" says Lobo. He adds that at the Commonwealth Games, a ball from Sardar -- a tomahawk pass -- was so good that he discussed it with Ric Charlesworth many years later when they met during the Hockey India League. "Pity, it didn't lead to a goal. But he broke the entire defence with one ball, that too from his weaker side."
Lobo adds: "Any boy in this country will dodge a rival player. It's in our blood. But defenders can usually catch the attacker after that. But not Sardar. He had an explosive burst of pace after he beat a defender which makes it impossible for them to come back, just like Dhanraj Pillay. You would need a lasso to catch them once they went past you!"
(Editor's note: The interviews for the quotes used in this piece with Sardar Singh, Harendra Singh, Sandeep Singh, Viren Rasquinha and Dilpreet Singh were conducted before Sardar announced his retirement)
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Updated Date: Sep 13, 2018 00:25:46 IST