The JW Marriot in Chandigarh sits on the crossroad of four streaming streets that head into some of the affluent sections of the city. Except at night, as the city sleeps early, the rest of the time, it’s a crowded inter-section that the hotel looks down on. On regular days, inside the parking area and at times opposite the entrance is parked a purple Range Rover with New Delhi licence plate. Inside the hotel on the Mezzanine floor sits Sardar Singh, the Range Rover man as few friends call him. He doesn’t talk much, once in a while joining the banter. The chaos on the roads outside reflects Sardar’s state of mind. One of India’s most influential hockey players in the last 6-7 years is at the crossroads. Kept out of the team for the Hockey World League Finals, he was perplexed, confused yet confident that the management is probably trying out new players. He hopes the New Year will change all that.
At the SAI Centre in Bangalore, the team list is out. It’s been a short camp. Some of the players have been playing domestic tournaments for their employers, mainly oil companies. PR Sreejesh is happy to see his name on the list. He has been out for more than six months with an ACL injury. “I am excited to see my name on a team list again,” he says. Sardar’s name is not there. For the second consecutive camp and tour/tournament, the former Indian captain’s name is missing. Someone observing him inside the camp says he quietly went down to the gym and started working out.
The team list is not surprising in terms of the inclusions. It’s a busy and tough year for Indian hockey. Exciting too as quite a few tournaments would test the progress of the team under Sjoerd Marijne, a Dutch coach who has had a brilliant start to his Indian coaching stint with two medals in his first two tournaments – gold at the Asia Cup and a bronze at the Hockey World League (HWL) Final. India now travels for the double leg four-nation tournament in New Zealand between Japan, Belgium, India and New Zealand. Then they go for the annual fixture in Malaysia, the Azlan Shah before recharging batteries to land on the Gold Coast, Australia for the Commonwealth Games. It’s the Champions Trophy in Holland, the last edition before it is consigned to the history books, and India has been invited. And then the second most important tournament of the year – the Asian Games, winning gold gives India automatic qualification for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. In October, the national team will travel to Oman for the Asian Champions Trophy before finally picking a team that in all respects would have the best chance to stand on the podium at the 2018 World Cup in Bhubaneswar.
It’s a packed calendar which requires dexterity, passion, experience and a fit Indian side. For the New Zealand tour, Surender Kumar is back and Dipsan Tirkey is out. Harmanpreet Singh, playing non-stop hockey, the whole of last year should have been given a break along with the Indian captain Manpreet Singh. It was quite evident at the HWL Finals that he was pushing himself to his limits. Whether the three-week break has been enough or not is for the physios and coach to decide. But the surprise inclusion is Satbir Singh who didn’t have a great Asia Cup but now suddenly finds himself back in the Indian side. Satbir’s performance at the Asia Cup was not down to form. It’s simply about him raising his levels and it would be surprising to see him in the mix when the selectors and coach sit down to list their top 18 players by the time the team travels to Indonesia for the Asian Games. Vivek Sagar is a welcome inclusion and one thought Mandeep Singh needed to work on his balance at the camp rather than jetting out to New Zealand. Dilpreet has been fast tracked into the national side from the team that finished with a bronze medal at the Sultan of Johor Cup, his first international tournament in the U-21 age group. The Punjab striker scored nine goals in six matches which included a hat-trick to end up as the tournament’s top-scorer with nine goals. Ramandeep Singh, kept out of the HWL Finals is back in the Indian team with Armaan Qureshi, another centre-forward being given another opportunity.
But frozen out of the New Zealand tour is the former skipper and experienced midfielder Sardar. The coach was non-committal on Sardar's future in the team. “We’re busy with this tournament. Then we'll see further. Right now, I can't say anything about the future.”
Eight caps short of 300, India’s ‘supposedly’ playmaker, converted back into a defender plus the pusher for the penalty corners and the player who others look for inspiration when caught in a jam faces a period of uncertainty. David John, high performance director for the Indian national team, refers interestingly to Sardar as ‘previous stature’ but is quick to add that India usually ‘discard players very early’ and then qualifies that statement with ‘Argentina had nine players above 30’ and ‘Australia had seven players above 30 at the Olympics.’ In a way, probably leaving the door, if not fully open, slightly ajar for Sardar.
“You don’t need to keep any door open for Sardar,” says Col Balbir, who has followed Sardar’s career since the team he broke into the Indian junior team. “That’s the wrong way to put it. The key questions are: Can he still hold the ball? Can he rotate without losing possession? And does that vision of finding Akashdeep (Singh), Ramandeep (Singh), (SV) Sunil still exist? I think all the three boxes are ticked. Why are we talking of speed here. Controlling the game in key moments of the match is as important as scoring goals. I don’t see any player in this team, in this year, doing that better than Sardar.”
Across 2018, India are playing 6-8 big tournaments and winning gold at Jakarta Asian Games constitutes a direct entry to Tokyo Olympics. John says ‘the World Cup is at home so we need to have a strong finish’ and ‘performance at the Commonwealth Games is important because our funding also rests on that.’
But the important part is when we recognise experience, especially on the bigger stage, doesn’t that constitute shielding players of the skill level like Sardar and keeping him fresh and fit for the bigger ones. John doesn’t commit. “It’s difficult to choose,” he says. In other words, the high performance director believes there is an entire stable of players all fit and raring to go. “Experience is a factor,” says John. “We are also giving a chance and seeing Harjeet Singh (Junior World Cup winning captain). I know what Sardar brings to the table plus I also know the others don’t bring ‘that’ at the moment.” David also points to Sardar’s leg speed saying it’s not fast enough. “The speed of the game has gone up. Sardar’s speed hasn’t come down. But he is training hard and he is in the core group of players. So we have to see.”
MP Ganesh, the 1990 World Cup coach and former Olympian believes Sardar is the best player in his position at the moment. “We have to see what are the strategies that the team is working out at the moment,” explains Ganesh. “It’s a team sport and everything has to be taken into consideration. I do believe that Sardar deserves his place but he would also listen to reason if explained the reason to be kept out of the HWL and now the New Zealand tour.”
Sardar hasn’t uttered a word yet. Like last time, he is in the camp and believes what the coaches decide is the best. Yes, speed is always increasing across the sport in the world. Yet control and holding the ball are equally important and we saw that in the matches at the HWL Final. John says that even though India beat Germany in the bronze-medal play-off, the team wasn’t at its best. So do we always sacrifice control for speed and try and break for counter-attacks at every given opportunity? “Yes,” feels John. “We are one of the fittest teams and we drain the opposition’s energy when we attack and play with speed. It’s a new style and the players will take a bit of time to adapt to it.”
John also says that the leaders on the pitch need to make that call and gauge what is happening when the team is needed to switch to control from high speed. “We do need to conserve energy,” points out John. “And sometimes when we have attacked in the last five minutes of each quarter, we have found the opposition tiring.”
Col Balbir feels playing at high speed constantly also exposes the defence on a counter. “We had counters against us in the HWL 3rd/4th play-off,” he says. “We were lucky. But players like Manpreet now have to defend and also be play-maker – that is a role which in the present scheme of things is not possible. You are burdening the player. And I could see that in the match against Germany.”
Resting Manpreet wasn’t an option for John; or sending Sardar as the mentor/player when you have a bunch of youngsters against New Zealand, Japan and Belgium playing eight matches in a week and a half. “I think Manpreet will play four matches,” explained David. “But Marijne wanted him as the captain and the main man who would communicate with the rest of the team. Marijne relies on him in the team meetings.”
Marijne echoes John's words: “It’s important because his leadership can help the young players to develop their game.” On Sardar’s mentorship role, Marijne said,”Sardar is doing it in the camp. But we have Manpreet, Rupinder and lot of players who can help the youngsters.”
MK Kaushik, the 1980 Mocow Olympic gold medallist and chief coach of the Gold medal winning 98’ Asian Games team, feels that Sardar’s presence in the 33 means they understand his importance in the side. “You can’t keep a good player out,” says Kaushik. “And keeping him fit is important because you would need to use that experience in the bigger tournaments.”
Ashok Kumar, the man who scored the match-winner in the 1975 World Cup final against Pakistan does admit that the team comes first then the player comes. “The players and their performance makes the team win,” says Ashok. “If the player is not the team, then some gap comes. Nobody can fill Sardar’s space. This is what I know, and many other players also know. Those who have seen his performance they know that he is playing complete hockey and his experience can help the team. I think hockey should take the benefit of it.”
With 33 players in the camp and John thinking of increasing it to 48 by the middle of the year, it’s almost like spinning a roulette wheel when it comes to selecting players for 6-8 tournaments, especially in 2018. “Even if we distribute players across tournaments, team selections are done simply on the fact that we don’t want to finish 4th or 5th but try and win the tournament,” says John. For the double leg 4-nation tournament, John admits that the team was selected when the team for the HWL Final was announced. There is no doubt that structures and the way India had played hockey over the last 4-5 years is in for a major change. Players will sit out as we see Akashdeep and Sunil not on the flight to New Zealand. But overall, there would be a core group that will play the Commonwealth Games, Asian Games and the World Cup – three tournaments that India would want to excel at; put its best 16 on the pitch.
For Sardar, who has won seven golds as a player and three as captain, the word ‘experience’ probably sets off a cascading series of mixed emotions. What John calls ‘lack of leg speed’, which actually means lacking in speed on the pitch, will hopefully not make Indian hockey hit an air pocket. Sacrificing experience for faster but inexperienced legs might not always work.
Stats and facts of Sardar Singh:
Born: July 15, 1986
Debut: In Chandigarh, against Pakistan, first Test match of eighth home-away India-Pakistan series.
Tournament played as player: 37 (Olympic Games - 2; World Cup - 2; Champions Trophy - 2; Hockey World League - 6, Azlan Shah Cup - 8, Asia Cup - 3, Asian Games - 2, Asian Champions Trophy - 2, Commonwealth Games - 3)
Gold medals won as player: 7 (Asian Games - 2014; Asian Champions Trophy - 2016; Asia Cup - 2017; Azlan Shah Cup - 2009, 2010; Olympic Qualifier - 2012; World League Round 2 - 2013)
Tournament played as captain: 16 (World Cup - 1; Champions Trophy - 2; Hockey World League - 5, Azlan Shah Cup - 3, Asia Cup - 1, Asian Games - 1, Asian Champions Trophy - 1, Commonwealth Games - 1)
Gold medal won as captain: 3 (Asian Games - 2014; Olympic Qualifier - 2012; World League Round 2 - 2013)
Silver medals won as captain: 5 (Asia Cup - 2013; Commonwealth Games - 2014; Azlan Shah Cup - 2008 and 2016; Asian Champions Trophy - 2012)
Bronze medals won as captain: 2 (Hockey World League - 2015; Azlan Shah Cup - 2015)
Youngest ever captain of India: In Ipoh Azlan Shah Cup played in May 2008; Sardar's age was 21 years and 10 months
Brothers won the Asia Cup: Didar Singh (2007) and Sardar Singh (2017)
Hockey India League: Played in all five versions, won as captain in 2014 (Delhi Waveriders) and 2016 (Punjab Warriors)
FIH’s All Star team: Twice in 2010, 2011
Awards: Rajeev Gandhi Khel Ratna (2017). Padma Shri (2015)
With stats inputs from BG Joshi
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Updated Date: Jan 10, 2018 19:22:31 IST