Having missed much of the action last year due to an injury, I am extremely happy, and in fact relieved to be back in competition mode again. I am not thinking of what I went through those past eight months; I am not thinking of the pain, the uncertainty, or the frustration of sitting in front of a television and watching my team-mates play some of the most crucial matches. However, something that gave me immense joy was watching some of the young players — most of them from the Junior World Cup-winning squad — make good progression to the senior team. They looked determined; they did not crumble in pressure situations and stuck to the team goals, specifically during the Asia Cup and the Hockey World League in Bhubaneswar in 2017.
The stand-out performances of Suraj Karkera and Akash Chikte also meant that we had more depth in our goalkeeping. To have a healthy competition among your own team-mates is always great because it only motivates you to get better at your own game.
While I personally feel there is still work to be done in the lead up to the World Cup in Bhubaneswar and the Asian Games, which are the two major events this year where we have to be at our absolute best, I am excited by the fact that the pool of players who now have good international exposure has increased to about 35 from about 22-24 earlier.
The fresh legs the juniors bring are an added advantage to the team. We have a good mix of experienced and young players who have the right temperament. Every training session is tough, competitive and exciting. As senior players, we have a responsibility to constantly communicate with players like Vivek Sagar Prasad and Dilpreet Singh to ensure that they play their natural game, and not get bogged down by any external pressure. They showed great potential during the tour of New Zealand, where they held sway against a world-class team like Belgium. It is important for these youngsters to stay grounded and continue to build on their game further.
As seniors it also becomes important for us to not be too harsh on them if they do something wrong while playing matches. I cannot shout or yell at them, like I would to maybe Sunil or Rupinder Pal Singh. We need to have a different approach while explaining to them where they went wrong.
There are about six players in the Indian team for the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games who are from the Junior World Cup-winning squad. They have all played in the Hockey India League and understand very well what international players bring to the table for their respective national teams. I believe they understand what is needed to play at a major international tournament, as most of these players have had good international exposure last year at the senior level. However, this will be their first multi-discipline sporting event. Hence, we need to guide the youngsters to ensure they don’t feel overwhelmed by the atmosphere at the Games Village and that they remain focused on the team’s target of winning the gold medal.
Only hard work and determination will fetch good results, and every single player in our team is aware of it. None of us can take our place for granted. We need to constantly come up with good performances, not just in competition but also during everyday training.
Personally, I am focused on my own game. I want to live up to my team’s expectations again. This year is extremely important for us, as we have set realistic targets for the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, the Champions Trophy, the Asian Games and the World Cup. If there’s one thing I might want to recall from my injury phase, then it would be patience and perseverance.
To be back to competitive hockey was as good as taking baby steps to goalkeeping again. When my name was announced for the tour of New Zealand, I became emotional and was moved to tears when I broke the news to my father over phone. It was undoubtedly the most difficult phase of my career because I had never suffered a major injury ever. I knew I would have to make that one save to bring back the confidence in me. But we managed to win our first match, which was against Japan, 6-0. To restart my career with a clean slate was reassuring.
When I wear my goalkeeping pads now before every training session, there’s only one thing on my mind — that I need to be better than I ever was. I have Bharat Chettri, former India captain, helping me and guiding me in almost every training session. I am eager to begin our campaign at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games — the first of our many challenges this year — and what better way to start than to play against Pakistan in our first match! Do stay tuned.
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