Sardar Singh - ever an optimist

"The Hockey India League is the best thing to have happened to Indian hockey. The future looks good," says India captain Sardar Singh.

Sardar Singh is one of the finest players in the world today. The Indian skipper says, "My thinking has always been ‘how much has world hockey changed and what can we learn from the changes."   -  M. Moorthy

Sardar Singh celebrates with goalkeeper P. R. Sreejesh (right) during the medals ceremony at the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon. India won the gold medal, defeating Pakistan in the final.   -  PTI

Sardar Singh and Germany's Moritz Fuerste fight for possession during a preliminary match of a four-nation tournament in London. Sardar has played in several positions for India. "I feel a player should be able to play in any position. In modern hockey, positions don’t matter," he says.   -  AP

Punjab Warriors' skipper Jamie Dwyer attempts to shake off his marker Sardar Singh of Delhi Waveriders in a Hockey India League match in Mohali. The HIL, according to Sardar, is the best thing to have happened to Indian hockey.   -  AKHILESH KUMAR

Sardar Singh, without doubt, is one of the finest hockey players in the world today. The 29-year-old Indian skipper, who has played in over 200 international matches, is of the view that his team is one of the best when it comes to fitness.

The Indian team, he says, is improving on all fronts in the run-up to the 2016 Rio Olympics. And on the perceived ‘North-South divide’, Sardar asserts that it doesn’t exist anymore. “The North-South divide is not there now. We eat together and play together as a team,” he says in an exclusive interview to Sportstar.

Excerpts:

Question: Could you tell us about your formative years?

Answer: Earlier, we used to play in a casual manner (on grass) in our village. Then our coaches started to think big. A new project came to our village in Santnagar (Haryana); it started with 100 students and every year they used to have selection and pick the best 25.

For eight years, we played on grass as there was no astro-turf. Then we used to practise at the Punjab Agricultural University, which had astro-turf. We used to train there thrice a week under coach Baldev Singh. I began playing on astro-turf when I was in Standard VI.

Do you remember your first international game?

It should have been the tour of Poland in 2003, but it didn’t happen. About two days prior to the tour, coaches told me that my name was not there in the team. I thought of quitting the sport and going to USA then.

My junior debut for India came during the Test series against Australia in Perth in October 2004. I was nervous, and as a result, I didn’t play well. I made quite a few mistakes. Then I thought to myself that it is very hard and I should quit the sport.

I made my senior India debut during the Test series against Pakistan in February 2006.

Once I started playing with the senior players regularly, I gained in confidence. I did a lot of hard work afterwards.

Every time I come back from a match, I ask myself whether I have improved; every time I come back from a tournament, I ask myself whether I have learnt anything new. My thinking has always been ‘how much has world hockey changed and what can we learn from the changes’.

You have been in several National camps. Do these camps help improve the performances of the players? Have these camps changed in the way they operate?

Earlier, the National camps were long and went on for about 45 days. Every day it was the same routine. It became monotonous. There was no proper focus. Now, we have camps of short duration, lasting not more than 25 days. We train with more intensity unlike in the earlier days. We have less than a year for the Rio Olympics. It is important to train well. Every individual should understand the coaches’ strategy and play accordingly.

 

Do National camps help in bonding?

During training sessions, we have a physical trainer from Australia named Matthew Eyles. We have video sessions, one-on-one sessions with players and regular team meetings. I would say that the team bonding exercises are more now. Behaviour, on and off the field, is important. Earlier, Punjab players would be on one side and the players from South on the other. In the last four to five years, what we have done is to have breakfast and lunch together. We have started sharing rooms. We are a family now. There are no major problems, no North-South divide.

What do you think of India’s performance in the last one year or so?

Undoubtedly, 2014 was a very good year for Indian hockey. We won the Asian Games, bagged the silver medal in the Commonwealth Games. We did well on the tours of France, Spain and New Zealand.

Has the Hockey India League changed the financial security of the players?

The Hockey India League has given the Indian youngsters a very good platform. Hockey is being played in schools, colleges and universities — it is being played everywhere. Actually, when the Premier Hockey League was launched in 2005, it attracted many youngsters. Financially, the players are well off now. I would say that the Hockey India League is one of the reasons why the Indian team is doing well of late.

Playing with Australian and German players has improved our standards. We are no longer intimidated by them. Moreover, players such as Jamie Dwyer and Teun de Nooijer have been with us, at different times, at the Hockey India League.

We have learnt a lot from them — on how they behave, how they prepare for a match, their lifestyle, etc. Our youngsters have learnt a lot from them. That is why I say the Hockey India League is the best thing to have happened to Indian hockey. The future looks good. Earlier, for an Indian player, to buy a house and a car was difficult. Now, all the players have a house and live a comfortable life. Those in the National team can hope for a better life.

What are India’s chances at the Rio Olympics?

A team’s performance is gauged on a day-to-day basis. If we play well, make less mistakes and stick to the plan and strategy devised by the coach, good results will come.

Indian hockey has fallen way behind over the last two-three decades. What do you think is the major roadblock?

We learn from past mistakes. As a team, we have to handle the pressures and perform. How we communicate and guide our team-mates will determine our performances in major tournaments. Fitness has changed in the last couple of years. Now, the 30 players that form the core group are very fit. Fitness is not a major problem with the Indian team anymore.

What do you think of India’s performances on the recent tours to France, Spain and New Zealand?

New Zealand and Spain are ranked above us. So, the fact that we have beaten them means we are improving. Against Spain, we played three matches of which we won two and lost one. This, I think, is a good result. Against the Kiwis, we played six matches and did well. Against France, we played two and won both.

In India, there aren’t many synthetic turfs. Is it a cause for worry?

Absolutely. Last year I was in Holland playing for HC Bloemendaal. There are nearly 1500 astro-turfs there. Even small boys get to play on these turfs. If you play on astro-turfs, your muscles develop well. In the north, I believe, they are planning to lay more astro-turfs. Still, we have a long way to go.

Tell us about your experience of playing in the leagues in Belgium and Holland.

It was a learning experience. In 2011, I played with Sandeep Singh in Belgium. I played with some great players in Belgium and Holland and learnt new things under new coaches.

Who are the players you admired?

Teun de Nooijer. Off the field, he is a nice person. His style of play is good. He has no airs about him despite having played in five Olympics and won four medals. It was a pleasure to train with Floris Bovelander of the Netherlands and Australia’s Jamie Dwyer.

You have played in the defence and in the midfield in your illustrious career. How easy it is to adapt to different positions?

I started as a right-winger and then switched to centre-half. Under the former India coach, Jose Brasa, I played as a full-back. Then again back to centre-half. I feel a player should be able to play in any position. In modern hockey, positions don’t matter.

What are your immediate goals?

My aim is to play good hockey for the country, and probably win a medal in the Olympics and the World Cup.

What do you plan to do after retirement?

I have not decided. I think I have 3-4 years in me, and I would like to play in the World Cup that will be held in India in 2018. I have to admit that it is not easy to maintain fitness levels. After the 2018 World Cup, I want to retire.

Does Indian hockey have the potential to reach top five in the world?

We need time to build a good team. Look at Belgium, even seven years after the India-Belgium series players have largely remained the same. They have not won anything major. It takes time. What I am trying to say is that the stability of the coaching staff and players will help the Indian team too.

Can Indian hockey recapture the glory of yore?

Yes, we can.