The hockey song of a sardar!

In the final stages of his career, it’s the only thing Sardar Singh wants — To Go out with a bang. For someone who still cannot explain what he feels every time he puts on the India blazer, next year’s World Cup at home would be the perfect stage.

Sardar Singh receives India’s highest sports honour, the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award 2017, from the President of India, Ram Nath Kovind.   -  R. V. Moorthy

At 18, Sardar Singh had his entire life figured out. Or so he thought. With friends from his village, Sant Nagar in the Sirsa district of Haryana, Sardar & Co. were to escape to USA, settle down and do something — anything — there. Hockey was to simply be a ticket to achieve that goal.

At 31, with a decade-long career in the sport behind him, most of it on-field, he has been honoured with the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna — the highest sporting honour for anyone in the country and only the second hockey player to get it since Dhanraj Pillay did 17 years ago. 

“I never thought of playing at this level. Playing for the country itself was never even a dream, just a fantasy. Playing alongside such legendary players like Pillay bhaisaab, playing for India, for such a long period — it’s all wish fulfilment. Back then, I had no one to guide me in these things or tell me what to do. Junior the, samajh bhi nahi thi. Without hockey, there was no option but to go abroad. But then I got into the senior camp. Once that happened, it was a different kind of excitement,” he explains in an exclusive, exhaustive interview with Sportstar.

“When I first stepped into the senior team camp, Dhanraj was there. Other seniors too — Jugraj paaji, Gagan Ajit paaji — it was a big thing for me. We used to see them on television during my academy days, wear the national colours and play. I thought I will get time to spend with them in the camps, learn from them. I did learn a lot because I was constantly in the national camp even though I did not make the cut for the national team. Those were the days of long camps, ranging from 45 days to 2 months at a stretch. I finally got a chance after about 10-15 such camps but once I did get into the playing XI, by God’s grace, I have not stopped. It’s been an amazing journey so far,” he reminisces.

That was during the double-leg India-Pakistan bilateral series in 2006, his baptism by fire that saw the team lose the series but brought Sardar into prominence. It did not make him a permanent presence in the team, though. For that he would have to wait another four years as Indian hockey went through a churning, both on and off the field, before the World Cup and then the Commonwealth Games in 2010 saw him make the grade from just another player to one of the best in the business. What set Sardar apart was the way he went about making himself absolutely critical to the team’s fortunes. 

His is the remarkable journey of a kid who never took hockey seriously but, once he got into it, ended up being fanatical in trying to be the best in the sport.

The growth of Indian hockey since then has, in a way, coincided with the growth of Sardar both as a player and a leader. “I have been very lucky to get very good team-mates. When I joined for the first time in 2005-06 in the senior side, players from all over — Punjab, Haryana, Karnataka — had their own groups. There was a lot of in-fighting. Mahaul bahut kharab tha. As juniors, we had little say and suffered a lot. I believe we are ourselves responsible for Indian hockey going backwards, mainly because of all these things. No one took any responsibility. But we got a good group later, backing up each other because we had seen the negative side of these things. Then the HIL started, Hockey India came into being, Narinder Batra took charge and all the things coming together at the same time helped take us closer to where we want to be. I am still not satisfied, we can be much higher and get better results but we are on the right track,” he asserts.

The groupism and in-fighting in the Indian hockey team in the 1990s and early 2000s is an open secret but it still is interesting that Sardar isn’t averse to admitting it openly at even a later period in time. It also shows that he takes his role as a senior player in the current side seriously enough, knowing he must avoid getting into the same hole as some of those he grew up idolising did. It hasn’t been easy, this maturity, for someone who abruptly walked out of the national camp two days before the team left for a major competition (the inaugural Asian Champions Trophy in 2011) and was labelled one the most indisciplined players in the side. It was only his prodigious talent that helped him tide over those times.

A Namdhari Sikh, picking up the stick only at the age of 12 — delayed even by India’s late-blooming standards — Sardar began playing hockey simply because where he came from, everyone did; more importantly, his elder brother Didar Singh played the sport and even represented India. That journey has taken Sardar to feature in the annual FIH World XI All-Stars team — twice in a row, the only Indian besides the legendary Dilip Tirkey to do so. Incredibly, while Tirkey was an out-and-out defender, Sardar made the cut as a full-back in 2010 and a centre-half in 2011, proving his versatility and brilliance. Starting off as a right-in, he has literally left his mark all over the field barring the goalpost. A lot of it was because of every new coach trying new things, always with Sardar as the crux of his plans and moving him about all over the ground.

Sardar Singh cycles at the SAI South Centre in Bengaluru during a National camp. The hockey ace has sweated it out to acquire this status as a premier player.   -  K. Murali Kumar

 

“Constantly changing coaches is a big problem. Every time a new one comes, you have to adjust your game, adapt your style and work out new combinations. And when you play well, the bar is raised and you are expected to be at your 100 percent all the time despite all the changes, which is not possible. What can be done is try and maintain a certain level of consistency, not go from 90 percent to 40 percent overnight. I am not proud of the fact that there have been games I played at maybe just 30 percent of my level,” he is candid enough to admit.

Ironical, then, that within a week of this Indian hockey saw yet another change of guard at the helm with Dutchman Roelant Oltmans making way for compatriot Sjoerd Marijne. There have been a series of foreign coaches since 2010 — Jose Brasa, Michael Nobbs, Terry Walsh, Paul van Ass and Oltmans — but Sardar’s vote goes to Brasa, the first credible full-time foreign coach in Indian hockey. Sardar admits that Brasa left the biggest impression on him and moulded him into the player that he is today.

“Personally, my best was under Brasa. He used me in the defence which I enjoyed, it gave me a chance to show my tackling and game skills. As a defender you get all the balls, you can see the whole ground and players, you are best positioned to read the match situation. Your communication gets better, you can control the game and settle the players. You know how and when to press or hold, pass or possess. My long vision of 30-40 yards is good, I can play long balls better from the back.

“The position of a free-man (or sweeper-back) along with the centre-half is like the team’s reed ki haddi (spine). Half the problems of a team are sorted if that works in tandem. I am keen to go back to that role and will consult the coaches and other senior team members to try me out there. If it works, great,” he explains his position. 

Already one of the fittest players in the side, Sardar wants to keep going as long as possible but is aware that there isn’t much time. “With more than 300 international games, at my age experience is as important as everything else. But I am still learning, every training session something new, I don’t think I am playing the kind of hockey that I have in my mind. 

“The reverse shot is my favourite but I have been missing a lot of that recently. In the Asian Champions Trophy last year, I had an easy chance but failed to connect. Things like these make you realise how you can never be a complete product, you are always getting better,” he accepts.

His friend from back home, incidentally, went ahead and settled in the USA. “He drives a truck there, maybe I would also be doing the same if not for hockey. I might have made a lot of money also, but the respect, fame and recognition which hockey has given me — I owe everything to it. We had no shoes, no food, no cycle, hitching our way to the ground everyday — this sport has given me so much. Today I can afford to buy any car I want, go anywhere. I owe it everything, the least I can do is contribute a little to getting the team back to being the best in the world,” he says with a faraway look in his eyes. Sardar’s approach to the game is brilliant in its simplicity. 

“Hold the ball. You have worked so hard to reach this level and get that ball, treat it preciously; make the opposition work equally hard to get it from you.” 

He dreams of an Olympic and World Cup medal before hanging up his boots. “The first target is 2018 WC then we will see. Either way I don’t see me going past 2020. Earlier I only thought of improving my game, now I need to share a lot more thoughts and experiences with other players and coaches, sit together to perform even better,” he says. In the final stages of his career, it’s the only thing he wants — to go out with a bang. For someone who still cannot explain what he feels every time he puts on the India blazer, next year’s World Cup at home would be the perfect stage.