As he headed for the team bus soon after practice,Sandeep Singh had the inkling that his team mates were going to celebrate his birthday once everyone was back in the hotel. When Sandeep was out of ear-shot,his team mates had ordered the cake but the drag-flicker had seen through their plans of a surprise party
For Sandeep,who turned 27 on Wednesday,the last year has had its share of ups and downs,but more of the latter. He was the highest scorer in the Olympic qualifiers as India made the quadrennial event after an eight-year gap.
The tournament itself was a disaster and Sandeep was dropped soon after. He came back with 11 goals in the Hockey India League but was still unable to make it to the national squad.
The door opened slightly after he was named as a reserve player for the squad which travels for the Sultan Azlan Shah tournament to be held from March 9.
And while most senior players would be disheartened being in the fringes of a team,Sandeep is ready to start from scratch. “It’s not the same as being in the main squad but I am happy I can contribute to the squad in any way I can. I trained along with the squad for the Champions Trophy,and also ahead of the World Hockey League in Patiala. I don’t think of myself as a lesser player,” he says.
Indeed with over a hundred international caps,Sandeep is still one of the most experienced members of the squad and youngsters turn to him for advice.
“I try to help out as much as possible. If there is increased competition it is only good for the team. I am really optimistic about youngsters like Mandeep,Gurjinder and Manpreet. They are so young and they have performed really well. I remember,how I too was part of the Azlan Shah tournament for the first time in 2005. After that I went to the Junior World Cup. I remember how much I benefited from the exposure. It is the same for these youngsters as well. They have a great opportunity and that is good because they are the future of Indian hockey,” he says.
And while acknowledging that he was facing some tough competition,he added that he was full of confidence after a strong showing in the HIL. “I was the top-scorer in the tournament and it wasn’t as if the opposition was weak. I was scoring against the best goalkeepers in the world like Nicholas Jacobi and Jaap Stockmann. During the tournament our team coach Ric Charlesworth said that I still have another five or six years of international hockey left in me. If as senior a coach like Charlesworth has so much faith in me,surely I should have belief in my own abilities,” he said.
With Coach Michael Nobbs insisting he would only return to the squad if he was able to reinvent himself Sandeep says he is committed to getting his career back on track. “I wouldn’t be working as hard as I am if I didn’t believe I can make a comeback. In 2006,I suffered a severe injury (accidental gun shot) and I worked incredibly hard to return. If I wasn’t serious I wouldn’t even have attempted a return. Back then there was no money in the game. I love this game too much to not give my best attempt,” he says.
With the Indian team adapting a strict fitness culture Sandeep says he is willing to put in the hard miles. ” I am working hard on my fitness and I have lost several kilos over the last few months.,” he says. Despite his best efforts,Sandeep knows a comeback will take time. “Right now coach Nobbs has a lot on his mind because he has to get the team ready for the Azlan Shah tournament but I want to keep performing so that I get noticed. After the Azlan Shah we have a training camp scheduled and I want to ensure that I leave nothing to chance,” he says.