Turned on by the big stage

Manpreet Singh, the lone Indian to be named in the Azlan Shah XI this year, is a hardworking, intelligent and a thinking player. By Uthra Ganesan.

When Manpreet Singh reached home in Jalandhar on March 20, he was meeting his family after more than five months. His 16-month-old nephew, according to the player, failed to recognise him. He refused to go near Manpreet for a whole day before realising that the ‘stranger’ was not a threat.

Manpreet, the lone Indian in the Azlan Shah XI named in Ipoh, Malaysia, does not mind his long absence from home. The 20-year-old player knows that he has only started his career, and there will be many more such long spells when he will have to be away from the comforts of his family.

“To be honest, I didn’t expect this. But when I was told about the honour, I felt very happy. I felt that my hard work and performances were being recognised and rewarded, even though I would have been happier if the team had managed better results,” says Manpreet.

Even over telephone, his exuberance is evident. Manpreet tries hard to sound serious, assume a mature tone and talk like a hardened professional, but fails miserably. He knows he still has a long way to go.

“I know I am quite junior to a lot of players in this team, but the position I play in — centre-half — is the one with maximum responsibility. That helps me keep my focus,” he says.

Like Manpreet, Sardar Singh, who was the lone Indian to be named in the Azlan Shah XI last year, is also a centre-half. The position is the heart of any team. A centre-half has to not only constantly feed the forwards and provide them the scoring opportunities but has to fall back often to defend.

“Having played with Sardar for the last two years in the senior team, I have learnt a lot. In his absence, it was quite a task to be the lynchpin of the team, but the team has supported me. And the coach has been constantly working with me as well, preparing me to fit into the role. That has helped a lot mentally,” Manpreet says.

In Ipoh, he was tireless, finding gaps with ease and keeping the team together. Always considered a hardworking, intelligent and a thinking player — qualities that came to the fore during the Hockey India League — Manpreet has the tendency to rush ahead in an attempt clear the way for his strikers.

Doesn’t he feel bad being in the shadows of the strikers despite doing all the hard work?

“Not really. I feel like scoring, but it’s a team game. And the most important thing is to protect your own goal. Apna goal to apna ghar hota hai, aur ghar ko safe rakhna sabse zaruri hai (the goal is like your house and protecting it must be the priority). As long as the defence is strong, anyone can go and score,” Manpreet says nonchalantly.

At the same time, he cites his own example to prove that a good performance will always be noticed. “The fact that I have been included in the list, as Sardar was last year, is proof that at any position, a good performance will be appreciated. The German captain, Mortiz Fuerste (also his Ranchi Rhinos team-mate in HIL) is also a midfielder, as is Pakistan’s Waseem Ahmed. But they are all legends because of their game and not the number goals (they have) scored. They are my heroes,” he says.

Manpreet also loves to perform on the big stage. In the HIL final, he scored the winning goal for his team. In Ipoh, he was instrumental in ensuring that India did not finish at the bottom. He controlled the game well for India in the 5-6 classification match against Pakistan and was named the Man of the Match. He also led India to the final of the Sultan of Johor Cup for juniors.

With the junior World Cup to be held in India in December, Manpreet has another chance to shine on the big stage.