Happy birthday, Manpreet Singh: From teenage prodigy to maverick leader

His consistency in the engine room, reliability and pride in shouldering responsibility have been the career constants of Manpreet who turned 28 on Friday.

Manpreet Singh

Manpreet Singh in action during the 2018 Men's Hockey World Cup match against Netherlands at the Kalinga stadium in Bhubaneswar.   -  Biswaranjan Rout

It was a day before India’s final group stage match of the 2018 Hockey World Cup in Bhubaneswar. A direct place in the quarterfinals was at stake following a draw against Belgium and skipper Manpreet Singh was running a high fever. 

Head coach Harendra Singh had a worried look on his face as he searched for his captain in the Kalinga Stadium complex. He finally found him in the players’ dining area and inquired concerning his health. Manpreet smiled at his coach and replied “Kal toh zaroor khelunga. Ye toh kuch nahi hai.” (I will definitely play tomorrow. This is nothing.)

The coach’s trepidation vanished when Manpreet sent a pass fizzing across the goalline in the opening minutes of the match. He pulled the strings in the centre, broke opponent attacks as India routed Canada 5-1 to reach the quarters.

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This undoubted reliability and pride in shouldering responsibility have been the career constants of Manpreet who turned 28 on Friday.

The qualities of a top player were evident very early in his career. Harendra recalled watching the Jalandhar lad at the junior national team trials in 2011.

“He was supremely talented when I first saw him at the 2011 national camp trials. Jugraj Singh (former defender) spoke very highly of him. He was not selected initially, but he got into the senior team later that year,” he said.

While playing his first major tournament in the 2011 Champions Trophy, the 19-year-old Manpreet was still trying to fit in the team.

“When he first joined the team in 2011, he was given the space to make mistakes. But he picked up things very quickly. He would learn a lot by looking at the seniors such as Sardar Singh, me and Sreejesh. At that time, there were 7-8 players in the team who had to deliver top performances to inspire the rest to give their best. Very soon, Manpreet was among those top performers,” former defender V.R. Raghunath said.

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His consistency in the engine room eased the pressure off his teammates. Even when he was tasked to marshal the midfield all by himself, he delivered without fail.

“I still remember the 2014 Commonwealth Games semifinal against New Zealand. We were under pressure as Sardar Singh was suspended for the game. Manpreet took the responsibility of playing halfback and made sure we were solid in the midfield. We won the match 3-2 and reached the final,” Raghunath said.

- Jack of all trades -

Manpreet’s confidence stems from being the jack of all trades. According to Harendra, there is no position on the pitch which he cannot ace.

“He could easily fit into five or six positions across the pitch. He could make the ball look like its glued to his stick, dribble with it while looking forward and finding his teammate. He is the perfect example of a modern-day hockey player,” the former Indian team coach said.

The Indian skipper’s defending ability is a thing to behold. During the recent FIH Pro League second match against Australia, the Indian circle went haywire with five attackers having a go at the goal.

Manpreet Singh receiving the Sportsman of the Year Award (Team Sports) during the Sportstar Aces Awards function in Mumbai.   -  R. RAGU

 

Manpreet managed to get hold of the ball and slipped. In a flash, he was back on his feet while guarding the ball with the bow of his stick and cleared the ball away from the circle.

“If you look at attack-minded players, they jump too soon into a tackle. The art of tackling is to resist a jab at your opponent’s stick. Manpreet waits for the moment where the opponent is off balance and then makes his move. He has the finesse of an elite defender,” Harendra said.

Inquisitiveness is another key element of Manpreet’s learning as he is always ready with a question for the coaches.

“He is among those players who can throw a challenge to the coach. During the team meetings, he would create a match-time scenario and ask ‘what should we do then?’ It is a quality every player needs to have in order to develop his game,” Harendra said.

- Donning the captain's hat -

But it was not all bed of roses for Manpreet. Since being handed over the captaincy in June 2017, he suffered multiple heartbreaks, including the quarterfinal defeat in the 2018 World Cup and a semifinal defeat at the Asian Games in the same year.

The defeats had defined his leadership style. There would be no preferential treatment of senior players, dressing room would be a place full of laughs and pranks with a playlist of Bollywood and Punjabi music playing in the background.

“The (World Cup) quarterfinal defeat was a bitter pill to swallow. Each one of us was down and so was Manpreet. As we sat in the team bus, he made sure he spent time talking to each of us individually.

"I think things that went wrong at Asian Games and World Cup served as a lesson for the team. I can see the improvement from the way they have played in the Pro League,” Harendra said.

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