Rupinder: More than a cog in the wheel

"We don’t want something like London 2012 to happen again. Ever. It’s not that we were 12 last time and so we want to finish 10 or eight now. We want to do something meaningful this time," says the Indian defender and drag-flick expert Rupinder Pal Singh.

Rupinder Pal Singh of India in action in the bronze medal match against the Netherlands in the Hockey World League final in Raipur.   -  Getty Images

Delhi Waveriders' Rupinder Pal Singh (third from left) celebrates with team-mates after scoring a goal against Dabang Mumbai in a Hockey India League match earlier this year. Rupinder, who made 12 penalty corner conversions, was declared 'Player of the Tournament'.   -  Sandeep Saxena

Chris Ciriello of Australia executes a drag flick in a Champions Trophy match against the Netherlands. According to Rupinder Pal Singh, Ciriello is a good drag-flicker in the game today.   -  Getty Images

Roelant Oltmans has a word of caution for Rupinder Pal Singh, as he poses on the lawns outside the team’s residence at the SAI South Centre for some pictures. “Remember that you are a hockey player,” he chuckles, shaking his head. Oltmans’s reminder, even if in jest, is necessitated perhaps by his defender’s good looks and the movie-poster poses he is striking. But Rupinder needs no reminding that he is a hockey player. In February, he was declared ‘Player of the Tournament’ at the Hockey India League, where he made 12 penalty-corner conversions. Last year, at the Hockey World League Final in Raipur, the 26-year-old played a memorable role in the bronze medal match against the Netherlands, sticking home the decisive stroke in the shoot-out.

It is difficult to believe that only last July, Rupinder was left out of the Indian team for the HWL Semifinals in Antwerp. It was a difficult time, he admits, when injury and poor form combined to wear him down. But in the space of nine months, he has become indispensable, the idea of an Indian team at the Olympics without his drag-flicks now hard to comprehend.

In this interview to Sportstar, the Faridkot-born Rupinder speaks of drag-flicks (extensively), his work over the last nine months, and the forthcoming Olympic Games.

Excerpts:

Question: How did you become a defender?

Answer: In those days, if someone was tall, the coaches used to make him a defender. ‘Oh, he’s tall, so let’s put him at the back’. That’s how I started as well.

When did you begin drag-flicking?

I was part of the Junior India camp in Gurgaon in 2007. Ramesh Pathania sir was our coach. Jugraj (Singh) bhai was also there. They saw that my height was good. They thought I could do it. So they asked me to start. I started training under them and my interest started growing. I picked up the basics from Jugraj bhai: how to generate power, how to beat the goalkeeper.

 

If they’ve been playing for a long period of time, goalkeepers and drag-flickers become familiar with each other’s techniques. Does it then become harder for you to get the better of the ’keeper?

Absolutely. But if you give the goalkeeper a surprise, you make it difficult for him. Because he’s only expecting what he’s seen before. If you do something new, it becomes difficult for him. Against Dabang Mumbai in the HIL, David Harte (of Ireland) was the goalkeeper. I knew he wasn’t expecting me to go right-top. So I thought, ‘let me go right-top and see what happens’. I knew Harte was expecting me to go low. So I went high and I got the goal. And I got the goal because I felt he wasn’t expecting me to do it. So sometimes, we have to read the goalkeeper’s mind.

How much do you practise drag-flicking?

The four of us — V. R. Raghunath, Harmanpreet Singh, Jasjit Singh Kular and I — train four days a week, and we start an hour before the others arrive for routine training. The ejector and stopper train with us too. We take a maximum of 50 shots in one session.

Last July you were not in the Indian team for the HWL Semifinals. Was that hard to take?

Definitely. It was quite a surprise to me. It happened all of a sudden. After that, I spoke to some senior players. How can I take this positively, I thought. I had to work harder. It’s easy to become negative and stop training.

But now you’re probably one of the most important players in the team. What has happened in the last nine months?

Last year was not good for me because of injury. I realised I had to concentrate harder because this is an Olympic year. I had to improve myself. So, I changed myself mentally. And I saw how I could improve as a defender; how I could tackle better.

What did you work on?

Tackling in particular. The position I play is an important one for the team. I tried to improve myself there quite a bit. In the HIL, I spoke to overseas players who played similar roles for their team. I took their views on board and implemented a few changes. I spoke to my team-mate Iain Lewers (of England) often. He was quite helpful.

Do you consider yourself a defender or a drag-flicker first?

I first consider myself a defender. A drag-flicker only after that. Because you may or may not get a penalty corner during a game. But it’s important to defend well. When I came into the team in 2010 and was still working to become a drag-flicker, I used to hear people say: ‘Good drag-flickers can’t be good defenders’. I used to talk to Jugraj bhai. He’d tell me: ‘You’re a drag-flicker. It’s your individual skill. You can become a specialist in it. But you will only be in the team if you’re a good player. If you’re on the bench, how are you going to drag-flick?’ That was my philosophy: first guarantee your place in the team as a defender. Then you can become a PC specialist.

Your role is very important to the team. Do you feel the weight of expectation?

Absolutely. It’s a big responsibility. If we get a penalty corner, when I’m running up to take it, I’m thinking of ways to score.

In the bronze medal match in the HWL Final, after Manpreet Singh was fouled in the shoot-out, you walked up to take the penalty stroke. What were those seconds like as you waited for the umpire’s whistle?

The adrenaline was pumping. There was pressure on me. It was the final stroke. If I scored, we’d win. I was taking deep breaths to release that pressure. I visualised where I wanted to hit the ball.

You went bottom-right. Was that planned?

In the penalty stroke that we got in regulation time, I had gone bottom-right. So this time, I thought I’d wait to see which way the goalkeeper went and then go in the other direction. He just stood in his place; at the last moment, he went one way, so I went the other.

Who is your favourite drag-flick specialist of all time?

Jugraj bhai. We loved him as kids. But sadly, his career was cut short by his accident. He was a very brave player. His rushing is something that cannot be taught. You’re either brave or you aren’t. Sandeep Singh was also a good drag-flicker. In the modern game today, Chris Ciriello is good. Ashley Jackson and Gonzalo Peillat are good too.

You were declared the ‘Player of the Tournament’ at the HIL. Has your perception of yourself now changed?

It’s not like I’m a complete player now. I made many mistakes in the HIL. But people didn’t notice them because I scored so many (12) goals and finished the ‘Best Player’. But I know what mistakes I made. But being declared ‘Best Player’ has given me greater motivation. It’s not that I don’t have to work hard anymore. I know that fans expect a lot more of me now. And I don’t want to disappoint them.

You became very popular after the HIL...

A lot has changed after the HIL. I didn’t imagine that so many people watched hockey. I’m quite happy that people are supporting me.

What was the reaction at home like?

My father follows hockey — and indeed all sports — passionately. If you visit my home, you’ll see only sports channels on the TV all the time. So my dad was thrilled. It’s still his dream that I go to the Olympics and win a medal there. I got a lot of love, from my friends, neighbours and relatives. All of them felt proud that one of them — from that little town — had achieved something like this.

You were not part of the squad for London 2012. That must have hurt. And watching the team finish last must have made it worse...

It was a very disappointing phase in my life. People who weren’t even following hockey, who didn’t know the names of any players in the team — they were criticising us severely. It felt bad. These guys didn’t know anything. They were only reading what appeared in the papers. I was at home watching on TV then. It was just so disappointing.

Do you and the rest of the team feel you have to make up for this at Rio 2016?

Absolutely. It’s in all our heads. We don’t want something like London 2012 to happen again. Ever. It’s not that we were 12 last time and so we want to finish 10 or eight now. We want to do something meaningful this time. I don’t know why, but there’s a voice inside me that says we’ll do something this time.

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