When Manpreet Singh first played at the Commonwealth Games, he was a fresh-faced 22-year-old who had recently graduated to the senior level of international sport. He was considered a prodigy. He has come a long way since then. Later this month, the 30-year-old Manpreet will lead the Indian men’s hockey team at Birmingham in pursuit of the one gold the country has never won in the Games.
“It’s been a roller-coaster ride all these years. I have seen a lot of ups and downs, both as a player and as a part of teams, but it’s been a fun journey and I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s also a very good space to be in right now with this team. Everyone is quite young and there’s a lot of fun off the field; at the same time, there is a lot of dedication on the field.
“You don’t have to tell anyone anything much. Everyone knows we are going out to win and that mindset helps the team as a whole. The understanding is also very good; for example, between me, Hardik and Vivek (Sagar Prasad) in the midfield, it’s a very balanced team,” says Manpreet.
There are things that have changed, though, for the better. And Manpreet personifies the change the best, both as a player and as a person. “The biggest change has been in fitness levels. There were teams better than us at that time but now, we are right up there with the best. Fitness has gone up to crazy levels. When we are given a target during training or before a game, every single player is able to reach it quite easily with a lot to spare. Everyone understands that fitness is the most important thing. Also, there is more understanding and communication between everyone, a lot more openness in discussions,” Manpreet explains. As a senior player he understands the added responsibility but the change in team culture means he doesn’t have to take it as a burden. At this point, he serves a quick reminder that he isn’t the seniormost, P. R. Sreejesh is.
“It’s a team effort now and there are no seniors or juniors. There are times when I have a bad day on the field, as in the last match against Germany, but others were motivating me to pull up and that we have to do well and win. That’s a great thing and youngsters actually push the seniors to do even better.
“The main pressure, in fact, even earlier, used to be the experience of being in the athletes’ village at multi-disciplinary events where everyone stayed and interacted with everyone else. Now, most players have that experience and know how to handle it. Frankly, what can be bigger than the Olympics?”
The team had a scare when a few players and chief coach Graham Reid tested positive for COVID last month but that hasn’t affected the preparations. With everyone back to training, things are now back to normal. The disappointment of missing out on a medal in 2018, though, still rankles.
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“It was a disappointment but we have worked on every aspect since then. It’s not that we ever took a team lightly but after that, we have made a conscious effort at not sagging because even if you think of a team as ‘weak’ subconsciously, it definitely affects your performance. That said, the team mindset and morale has changed completely now. There is a winning mentality, especially after the Olympic medal – a belief that games can turn at any second and we can do that, too.”
The target this time around has been broken into smaller brackets and moving ahead, one at a time – first top the pool, then reach the final and then go for the gold. “Since the Olympic medal, teams have started planning specifically for India. We are a marked team and they do take us a lot more seriously. Earlier, the margins used to be real big against us but now it’s a one goal difference or a draw and shootouts. And our team, too, has the belief now that we can win a medal at any competition. We are studying every team in detail, their strengths and weaknesses and how we can hurt them the most.”
No fear of losing
The one flaw that pegged the Indian team back in 2018 was the continued malaise of conceding last-minute goals. It raised its head yet again during the recent Pro League games but Manpreet is confident his team has overcome the spectre.
“Even the best teams can and do concede and we are no different. We are aware and planning for it but yes, when there are 11 players, the smallest of mistakes by any single player anywhere on the field can lead to a goal against you. It can still happen but this team has moved past the point of letting it affect the morale.
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“Against Belgium in Pro League, we were trailing 3-1 in the last 90 seconds, but not only did we score once, we also created another chance right at the end. That’s where we are now and the fear of losing is gone. The mindset has changed to a positive, aggressive one where even if a match is moving towards a draw, our aim is to stay dominant and in control, look to score and win, not defend the draw,” he asserts.
The bogey of Australia looms large. India hasn’t beaten the world No. 1 at a major competition in ages; the last meeting between the two at the Tokyo Olympics was a 7-1 thrashing that reminded everyone of the 8-0 in the Commonwealth Games final at home in 2010. It’s the only constant in a world of hockey where everything else has been in flux for the past decade or so.
“They are obviously the best side in Commonwealth Games but we are training for every team, not just Australia. We are working on our penalty corners and our defence because apna ghar bacha ke rakhenge tabhi uske ghar pe confidence ke saath attack kar sakte hain (We can mount an attack with confidence only when we safeguard our home). And when we go on the attack, our target is to either get a penalty corner or score every time because with a team like that, you get very few chances and you need to make each one count,” Manpreet admits.
The other team India is wary of is England, which happens to be in the same pool. “They can surprise anyone, any time and can change the script. Also they will be home favourite so that is a team we are cautious of.”
And Pakistan? “We are only seeing them as another team and will play accordingly because if we get too emotional, we will lose our structure and start playing with our hearts not minds.
“If we do face them, we will stick to our pattern and if we do that, we will surely win,” is his politically correct sign off, with a mischievous smile. It is a smile captain Manpreet retains from all those years ago.