This 3G is a 3D player

“Modern hockey is very fast. The world's top sides like Germany, Holland and Australia play this way, so to stand up against them and play like them we need to train the way they do,” says Sardara Singh in this chat with Nandakumar Marar.

India team-mates have nicknamed him ‘3G' due to Sardara Singh's obsession for the latest electronic gadgets. During competitions like the Olympic Qualifier 2012, he took on the workload of three players — striker, playmaker and tackler — depending on positioning in match situations, making him the Most Valuable Player to have on your side.

Foreign coaches see unique qualities in him. Jose Brasa of Spain converted him from attacking midfielder into sweeper back for the 2010 World Cup. He continued in the defence as Michael Nobbs tightened up the rearguard for the 2012 Olympic Qualifier, but gave Sardara the freedom to create panic with deep forward passes and the licence to score if possible.

FIH named him twice on the World XI (2010 and 2011), a shortlist of the world's best individual performers chosen by experts and an indication of his rating internationally. Australian head coach, Ric Charlesworth, a former midfield general in his prime, admires the sturdy, bearded Indian's decisive play in offence and defence so much that he is even supposed to have popped the question.

Sardara explains: “We meet during tournaments and test matches. Charlesworth told me once, whether in jest I don't know, that he will give me one chance to play for Australia if I was interested and asked me to seek Australian citizenship. I laughed it off then. He is a great player, has depth of knowledge and is easy to approach.”

For Indian juniors training at the SAI campus in Bangalore or Balewadi when the seniors are at work, admiring his chiselled physique and advanced hockey skills is a favourite pastime. Coaches wish that the youngsters would also emulate his dedication and down-to-earth nature, training alone for hours after group practice sessions to polish his astonishing ability to hit one-handed passes.

The Indian vice-captain is a hit with teammates, coaches, juniors and even corporates, going by the applause when Sardara's achievements were read out before he was called up on stage during Emcure Pharmaceuticals' felicitation in Pune for the national squad.

Excerpts from a chat at the Balewadi Sports Complex:

Question: Following the entry of foreign coaches, Michael Nobbs from Australia for the 2012 Olympic Games and Jose Brasa from Spain earlier for the 2010 World Cup, Indian team preparations have had new methods, new approaches. Having played under both, your view on the new thinking?

Answer: Modern hockey is very fast. The world's top sides like Germany, Holland and Australia play this way, so to stand up against them, we need to train the way they do to be able to play like them. I have trained under Indian coaches also, enjoyed my experience with them.

Now foreigners have come in. When Brasa was in charge earlier he changed our technique. From the time Nobbs and David John have taken over, we are following the Australian type of attacking hockey. It demands speed, stamina and fitness and aspects like weight training become essential to play attacking hockey effectively. In the last seven months, we are doing a lot of weight training. You would have noticed that players have put on muscle, there is a change in speed, stamina and playing style.

Controlling the team from the midfield and deceptive passing. Did these facets in your game come naturally to you? Were you always playing this way?

Truth is I am working hard at it. After team training sessions get over, me and Rupinder Pal Singh (penalty corner specialist) train separately to add new things to my game, cut down on the mistakes and develop techniques in passing which will benefit my team. I spend more hours at the ground than others. I want to perform at my best for my team-mates. We are playing as a team, assisting each other like a family. It helps. I also wish to do the best for my nation, for the hockey lovers who encourage us.

Your style of play includes unique things like single-handed passes, slap shots and deception when relaying the ball to teammates. Where did you learn this? Did you pick up these tricks from any former great?

It all happened due to training. Hockey greats like Teun de Nooijer and Jamie Dyer, I observed them closely. I believe top footballers like Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi also influenced me. I try to watch their videos to learn ball control, how they carry the ball across the field and set up passes, sometimes even score. I am trying to absorb these elements into my game from time to time.

When Brasa took over as head coach for India, you were converted from a creative midfielder into a defender for the World Cup. How did you mould yourself, especially accepting the demands of a defensive role?

Sardara is a big hit with youngsters.-

I remember Brasa's first day with the Indian probables. He watched us and noted down player types and style of holding the hockey stick. Then he started by making us play looking up, those exercises are useful even now. He made me play free man in the defence, in the full-back position because I was comfortable moving up with the ball and relaying passes. For one year I played free man and gained in confidence and got nominated for the World XI twice, based on my showing for India.

Forwards hog the limelight by scoring goals, now drag flickers also become famous. You sacrificed fame for a thankless role as defender, doing a soldier's job of guarding the approach to goal?

I realise the extent of responsibility for team and country. Hockey is a very fast game, you have to decide in the fraction of a second where to hit the ball. Goal-scorers became famous and forwards have an advantage in that aspect, but the thought of trying for fame by getting goals did not enter my mind. I can score if I desire, but prefer to relay the ball to my team-mate in the best scoring position near the goal.

What does Nobbs expect from you? What role are you expected to play in the current team? Do you remain a defender like under Brasa?

My role is to take the ball out of the defence quickly and transfer it to the others in front. Switching from defence to offence has to be done as swiftly as possible via forward passes, or through passes to the sides or back.

How is your experience under Nobbs in team-building with an eye on the London Olympics?

From the time Michael Nobbs has come in, he has advised us about specific areas where we can take risks. Earlier we started moves from the 16-yard area, the passes were casual. Now we have learnt to hit sure passes if possible, otherwise hitting long diagonal passes is preferable. The reason is that if we lose possession or miss balls in the centre, the counter-attack will be direct. If the opponent gains possession along the sides, we have numbers in the defence and are better placed to face counter-attacks.

Regarding team building, the current Indian squad does not have seniors or juniors. Each one is given a role to play and is treated as equal by the coach. We seniors try to carry them along, the juniors on their part are fast adapting to the intensity at senior levels. During the Olympic Qualifiers, they adjusted so well that I did not realise that I was playing with juniors.

The Indian style is about attacking in waves and scoring goals. Under the new Australian coach, we are attacking like we used to do earlier. We also ended up conceding goals in one-sided matches during the Olympic Qualifiers. Will letting in soft goals trouble us at London?

Nobbs has encouraged us to attack all the time and not worry about letting in a few goals. He is trying to convince us to be ruthless and not be satisfied with victories by one or two-goal margins. We are working on defence in video sessions. Australia has the same approach. I discussed with Charlesworth about the Indian style of attacking hockey. He said that Australia is number one in the world playing the Indian way.

We made defensive errors before in the Qualifiers and conceded easy goals, we are working hard to rectify those mistakes and tighten up our overall game in the time left before the Olympics. One of the reasons for going to London for this test event (four-nation tournament) is to play more frequently against top teams, challenge them and use the experience.

How do you counter the European tactics, the physical play so typical when they are facing Asian teams? How do you handle the body play without getting intimidated?

I prepare separately for each tour. When we are playing the Europeans, there is a lot of physical play, so I do extensive weight training and a lot of mental preparation to become tough in the mind. The skills I have polished and the experience I have accumulated so far come in handy.