Sardar Singh’s all-round ability once made him an indispensable member of the Indian team and a perpetual threat for the opponents. He could set-up and score goals, was technically adept to bail the defence out time and again, and was the team’s main creative outlet. Ultimately, a decline in these attributes has led to curtains being all but pulled down on the ageing midfielder’s illustrious career.
Sardar, as expected, was dropped from India’s 18-member squad for next month’s Commonwealth Games. And unless there is a dramatic change in the team’s selection policy, it looks likely that last week’s Azlan Shah Cup, where he was the captain, was Sardar’s final tournament in the Indian jersey. With chief coach Sjoerd Marijne choosing players with ‘more creativity, depth as well as scoring and defending abilities’ ahead of him, a re-entry into the core group looks high uncertain for Sardar.
In fact, Marijne said he will shrink his core group for future tournaments to 24 players from the current 33, and it is learnt Sardar does not feature in it as well. The team for the year’s other major events like the Champions Trophy, Asian Games and World Cup will be picked from those 24 players. There will be another group of 24 players but that will be a developmental squad.
A Hockey India official said it will be up to Sardar to ‘announce his retirement or keep playing domestic competitions.’ The 31-year-old, it is learnt, left the national camp on Tuesday after the team was made official.
Sardar is not the only Indian team regular to be excluded from the Gold Coast-bound squad. Striker Ramandeep Singh and midfielder SK Uthappa, too, have been axed from the team for their inconsistent performances, although the former has been named as a reserve player in case of an injury to one of the squad members. Unlike Sardar, Ramandeep is likely to return to the core group after the CWG but the same cannot be said of Uthappa, a two-time Olympian.
Marijne has made a bold decision to replace the veterans with players with no prior experience of playing a major tournament. Centre-half Vivek Sagar Prasad and forward Dilpreet Singh, who made their debuts at a tournament in New Zealand earlier this year, replace Sardar and Ramandeep respectively.
On the eve of the team’s announcement, Sardar said his fitness was as good as it has ever been but admitted he had work to do on his receiving abilities. But Marijne said he was not convinced with Sardar’s speed and all-round abilities when compared to some of the youngsters who play in the same position.
“It’s not only in Azlan Shah but also in Asia Cup. We also saw him in the training,” Marijne said, justifying Sardar’s omission. “We did not select Sardar because we think that Manpreet (Singh), Ching (Chinglensana Singh) and Vivek (Sagar) are doing really well in those positions. They make easy depth, have a lot of creativity, they can score and are good defenders. Because of that, we did not pick Sardar. This will be the core squad for rest of the year. They will be made to 24 after the Commonwealth Games and we play the big tournaments with these players.”
Sardar is the first big casualty of a rapidly changing selection policy under Marijne. A few years ago, it would have been unlikely for a player of Sardar’s stature to be dropped, especially for an important multi-discipline event, for losing a yard of their pace. But India’s talent pool has gradually been widening, with players like Sagar and Dilpreet showing signs of maturity and some from the 2016 junior World Cup-winning squad snapping at the heels of the established stars.
It has given Marijne, who has shown affinity towards younger players, the opportunity to phase out the players who do not feature in his plans, regardless of their reputations. Questions have frequently been raised over Sardar’s presence in the team over the last 12 months, with some suggesting he was picked by former coaches only on the basis of his past exploits.
Marijne said has not taken into account a player’s past performance, relying only on their form since he took charge in October last year. “This squad has been picked keeping in mind the performance in the previous tournaments since the Asia Cup 2017,” said Marijne, who has tested close to 45 players since taking over from Roelant Oltmans as the coach. “We have tried out different combinations in the past events and we believe this will be the most effective combination for the Commonwealth Games. And Sardar does not feature in my plans right now.”
Squad: Goalkeepers: PR Sreejesh, Suraj Karkera; Defenders: Rupinder Pal Singh, Harmanpreet Singh, Varun Kumar, Kothajit Singh, Gurinder Singh, Amit Rohidas; Midfielders: Manpreet Singh (C), Chinglensana Singh (vice-captain), Sumit, Vivek Sagar Prasad; Forwards: Akashdeep Singh, SV Sunil, Gurjant Singh, Mandeep Singh, Lalit Kumar Upadhyay, Dilpreet Singh