At the onset of 2014, Terry Walsh had laid out his priorities pretty clearly: An Asian Games gold and ensure the players aren’t over-worked. It was that kind of a year. With five major tournaments scheduled all within two months off each other, shuffling the squad was imperative.
Add the Hockey India League (HIL) and the test series into the mix and it further cramped the schedule. “We need to be as fresh when we play the last match of the Champions Trophy as we were while playing the first match of the season,” Walsh had said. The Australian wasn’t around by the time Champions Trophy came. He had already parted ways. But he would’ve been seething had he been around.
By the time India took the field against Australia for the bronze medal playoff in Bhubaneswar two weeks ago, they looked mentally and physically drained. India have been playing with more or less an identical group of players throughout the year, so the tiredness was understandable. And in that weary display, one man stood out: Sardar Singh. He always does. Unlike other occasions, however, this time it was for all the wrong reasons.
The national team’s composition has changed drastically post London Games. Sardar, though, has remained a constant. He was the pivot of the team before the 2012 Olympics and continues to remain so. Crucially, the 28-year-old has been playing non-stop since the 2010 World Cup, where his prowess came to the fore.
In the subsequent four years, he hasn’t been rested for a single match, a single tournament. And though there is no official figure, he has spent most number of minutes on the turf compared to other Indian outfield players. When the team had a two-month break at the end of last year — their longest in some time — Sardar chose to play club hockey in Holland rather than spending time at home.
Former national team captain and selector Balbir Singh says relentless schedule has taken a toll on his game. “We all say that Sardar does not have the same impact on the field as he used to have a year or two ago. But it’s more to do with fatigue than form. Give him proper rest for one month and you’ll see his old self again,” Balbir says. “Right now, he does not look 100 per cent fit. Consequently, a lot of errors are creeping into his game.”
Performance of no player is scrutinised so intensely in the current Indian hockey team than Sardar. Every yard he runs, every lunge he makes, every tackle he attempts and every pass he delivers is analysed. Unwittingly, he provided a lot of fodder during the Champions Trophy. Those beautiful long balls he fed the forwards from the centre of the field were not precise as they used to be. His tackling half-hearted.
AK Bansal, his former coach with Delhi Waveriders in the HIL, points out that power and aggression are missing from his game, which is more concerning. “His game is based on pure aggression. But that has been missing for the last few matches. We don’t know if the injury he suffered before Champions Trophy (calf and ankle) affected his performances. But even otherwise, the key elements of his game are missing as we have seen in the last few tournaments,” Bansal says.
Inferences are drawn with Dilip Tirkey, perhaps the only other player to have played on without a break for such a long duration. Ten years, to be precise. Tirkey, now an MP from Orissa, hardly missed a match. He went on to become one of the finest defenders the country has produced and also the highest-capped Indian player. But in the bargain, he sacrificed a lot. An ankle injury ended his career. Six months ago, he underwent an operation in Australia where both his ankles were replaced.
“They were completely damaged. The doctor was surprised that I could even walk,” Tirkey says. The impact of Tirkey’s premature exit from the team is still felt. The Indian defence over-relied on him and since his retirement, it has been in the doldrums. India know they can ill-afford another such case.
In Sardar’s absence, the lack of leadership and creativity in the field is glaring. The alarm bells are still not ringing in the Indian set-up.
“We have performance monitors. We keep a close eye on fitness of all players. If we feel that any player is over-worked, we will give him necessary recovery time,” high performance director Roelant Oltmans says. Sardar doesn’t say much. He says it’s part and parcel of a ‘professional’ career. There is no time for him to dwell on it. The next assignment, HIL, is already starting at him. “Agle saal thoda aaram hai paaji. 2015 is a relatively less stressful year. Regardless of that, we can’t complain. We have to deal with it.”
Before he returns to the pitch in mid-Jan, though, he is looking forward to a small off-season. “Two weeks at home should be fine before I return,” he says. Recovered and refreshed, one would hope.