Akashdeep Singh has a genuinely warm smile, the kind that assures everything is well with the world. He doesn’t give it too often, though, which makes his current relaxed demeanour, exchanging laughs with his teammates during practice so much more special.
It hasn’t been easy for the 28-year-old striker with the Indian hockey team; Akashdeep is an aberration. As a Punjabi, he is not flamboyant or extrovert.
As a striker, he is not flashy; if anything, he has an inherent shyness that ensures the spotlight remains firmly away. Which is perhaps one of the reasons he has not got as much credit as he deserves for his performances and got more than his share of criticism every time something goes wrong.
Still relatively young but with a decade-long career and multiple medals at the Asian and Commonwealth Games, Akashdeep is among the seniormost players in the current side. He is still the softest speaker, though.
“As you grow, juniors start joining and you need some time to bring an understanding with them. But we stay in camps and spend a lot of time together so there are no problems.
After games, also during team debriefings, and even otherwise, we talk about having this understanding and where we faltered or missed on the field and areas we need to improve. Such discussions help us keep getting better all the time,” he tells Sportstar post-training on Tuesday.
That he even agreed to speak is a rarity – Akashdeep must be among players with the fewest media interactions over years, including press conferences.
Technically gifted with great game sense and constantly adapting to the developments in the sport, his one drawback has been a lack of killer instinct which often saw him shy away even in his hour of glory. This time, however, he has made an exception, willing to open himself just a little.
THE HIGH AND THE LOW
Making his national team debut as an 18-year-old in 2012 and quickly cementing his place, Akashdeep was India’s top-scorer at the 2014 World Cup and was named the Hockey India League’s best young player and Hockey India’s Forward of the Year.
But for someone who was a permanent name in the Indian side all these years, being dropped for the Tokyo Olympics was a huge shocker.
“It is very, very difficult to accept a decision like that because when you start playing as a kid, your only dream is to play the Olympics, the World Cup and winning medals – and when you get dropped for the one tournament you have been playing for so many years, working hard all your life and leaving behind everything, I can’t express in words how bad that moment is for any player.
When it happened to me, it was not easy but I still had a meeting with the coach back then and promised him I would work on the things he had mentioned and prove myself all over again on the field,” Akashdeep reveals.
He did, ticking things off one by one.
“I was mentally disturbed after the drop but then you come back in the team and go to the CWG and win a medal, then again you are in and out for the Pro League, then again go to Australia against the best team in the world and do well enough to earn a World Cup call-up – it is not just a physical thing.
I worked a lot on the coach’s reasons for not getting picked for Tokyo -- off-the-ball work, defensive play and running all the way back into own circle to defend – and it is giving results,” he explains in perhaps the first time reasons for his being dropped for Tokyo have been made public.
His intelligence and hard work on-field is not a secret and one of the reasons the players respect him so much despite his absence in Tokyo, the other being his calmness. His religious bent of mind has also helped him a lot.
“I try to pray 2-3 times a day, it helps me not get agitated and feel mentally relaxed and calm. It is important to do that as much as possible off the ground -- the more relaxed you are as a person off-field, the better you can be in taking calm decisions on it,” he explains.
Replying with just a wry laugh when asked if he will regret the Olympics miss forever, Akashdeep insists the focus now is only the World Cup. “Of course, there is individual hunger but the entire team aims to do something special this time. Everyone has the same target, a medal. Everything else can wait,” he declares.