In silence, Sardar thrived. In silence, he quits

Sardar Singh walked into the sunset after a stellar 12-year career during which he not only established himself as a face of Indian hockey but also as a global star.

Sardar was eager to continue till the 2020 Tokyo Olympics but destiny had other plans as he called time at 32.   -  Getty Images

His retirement is old news by now and his career graph charted in detail but when Sardar Singh decided to speak to select media here on Saturday afternoon, he still managed to gather everyone who was invited. It wasn’t a comprehensive list by any means but as only the second Khel Ratna awardee from hockey, the former India captain continues to be its biggest star at the moment, even in walking away from the India jersey forever.

He is also one of the most humble people in Indian sports. As an icon himself, he had no qualms admitting to seeking out Sachin Tendulkar’s support to overcome uncertainties. “After I was dropped for the Commonwealth Games, I spoke to him about people saying I wasn’t good enough and asked how he handled criticism. He said go back to watching your best performances, talk to yourself before the next game, visualise the next match and try to think of your role in it, just don’t walk into a game without thinking.

“He has always been a mentor. Every time I call him, I am the one who says bye, he never does. Dhanraj Pillay is a mentor, even players like Jamie Dwyer and Teun de Nooijer with whom I have played have been my big supporters,” he said in what would certainly rate as one of the most candid chats by an Indian hockey player.

In his 12-year long career, there is little Sardar – he clarified, for once and all, that was his name, not Sardara – hasn’t witnessed, good or bad. He’s been part of India missing out of Olympics in 2008, he was there when India finished a depressing last in London and he was on the podium when the team returned with the Asiad gold in 2014 and two consecutive silvers at Champions Trophy. It hasn’t been easy for him to walk away from all of it, he admitted.

Sardar made his senior debut for India against Pakistan in 2006 and since then he was a vital cog in the Indian team’s midfield.   -  Getty Images

 

“It was a difficult decision. I will miss the team and the dressing room and all the memories of all these years but every player has to go through this one day. Much bigger players than any of us have had to leave the sport. There was a routine earlier, preparing for matches or concentrating on training. The last 10-12 years were the best of my life. When I think about it all you do feel you want to continue playing for the country but it’s all part of life. I can’t think of life beyond hockey, to be honest, but let’s see. I guess I will have to find something else in life now. But not right now – I will play for at least 2-3 years more in European leagues and coach kids,” he outlined his tentative future plans.

But these were the good things. He praised the federation and Narinder Batra for making hockey a financially viable career for Indian players, he gave credit to the professionalism in the administration and he appreciated the efforts put in to raise the team’s profile from laggards at 13-14 in the world to being in top-five.

All through, he had a smile on – one would struggle to remember when Sardar scowled talking to anyone off the field – but the pain of not getting a farewell worthy of his stature was evident. He was asked about it, and the general proclivity of sports federations not allowing players to walk off on their terms, and Sardar laughed. “Samajh gaya aap kya kehna chahte ho (I understand what you want to say). I feel happy to have actually got a chance to announce my retirement myself. It’s a good thing also for youngsters when you walk away with respect. It’s all good the way it has been, I have spoken to everyone in federation and coaches. I had invited them also but I think they are all travelling,” and refused to comment any further.

He did comment on the ongoing debate about a foreign coach, though. And was clear that Harendra Singh, the incumbent, was the best choice at the moment. “I think Harendra is one of the best and I am not saying this because he started my career or insisted in keeping me in the team. Yes it is an honour for me that I started against Pakistan under him as a junior and played my last game against Pakistan under him as a senior.

“He has grown a lot as a coach from the time he first started, he has done all the FIH courses and is well-respected, he has proven himself every time he got a chance whether with seniors, juniors or the girls. What we do need is for our younger players who have been with the Indian team recently – people like Arjun Halappa or Tushar Khandker – to go the same way, complete proper FIH courses and come back to coaching. Only then can we further improve Indian hockey.”

Sardar has few regrets, none of them with the way he has been treated or dropped. “Bas ek tha, FIH Player of the Year agar milta to achha hota, wo mera dream tha. That and winning a World Cup or Olympic medal. Other than that, by the grace of God and the support of my team-mates and every player I have played with ever in my career, I have everything – respect, fame, decent money also. Can’t ask for more,” he laughed.

At 32, he is still among the fittest in the side. They say he has slowed down but against Pakistan at the Asian Games, there was a moment when he caught up with S.V. Sunil, the fastest in the side, covering a distance of almost 30m in the blink of an eye with a sudden thrust. His YoYo scores would put Virat Kohli to shame. Harendra vouches for his commitment to training by declaring he is the first on the field and last off it. But the ‘catch them young’ mantra of Hockey India has no place for all of it.

Instead, the old warhorse only has a few tips for the next generation that both the players and the federation would do well to heed. “Belgium has been together for almost 10-12 years but are yet to win a big world title. Players need that confidence, you need at least 10-11 players in the core who are assured of their spots at least 10-11 who are sure of their spots for at least a fair period, so that they can lead the team ahead.

“We need to learn how to kill time in the final minutes and how to handle the big moments in big matches, the semis and finals of major tournaments. And these are not problems of fitness or coaching or strategy. It is only about communication, it is something every player has to work on individually and as a unit. If the players can do that, you can be sure we will be on the podium of World Cups and Olympics very soon,” he hoped.

He had also hoped to be around at least till the World Cup later this year. That hasn’t happened. He promised he would be there to cheer the team from the stands. And, maybe, see them win the medal he couldn’t.