In the 52nd minute of the HIL2 final, with both, Punjab Warriors and Delhi Waveriders locked 3-3, Sandeep Singh had the opportunity to give his side what would perhaps have been a decisive lead. He had already converted 10 penalty corners in the tournament but his shot, though cleanly hit, went wide of the post.
Had that gone in, it would have been the perfect high for a player who has seen more than his share of lows recently. Once the premier Indian drag-flicker, Singh has fallen behind Rupinder Pal Singh and VR Raghunath in the pecking order.
Even though he had been the top goal scorer of HIL 1, his side, Mumbai Magicians, chose to replace him with junior Gurjinder Singh. While his drag flicking was still effective, the rationale had been that Sandeep’s defensive skills had steadily eroded, making him a liability who conceded more than he scored. HIL2 saw Sandeep, 27, move to a new side and coach, in Warriors and Barry Dancer. The Australian stated his priorities were simply to find a good drag-flicker and improve on his side’s poor PC conversion in the first season.
Sandeep has done exactly that. While the Warriors appear to have suffered defensively — they conceded more goals than any other team in the top four — Sandeep’s PC ability more than made up for it as they also scored the most goals (40, 10 more than any other team).
Over the course of the tournament, Sandeep’s defensive ability, long the object of ridicule, also showed a marked improvement as seen in the league game against UP Wizards when he consistently negated three-time FIH player of the year Teun de Noijer. Sandeep’s improved play at the back drew praise from his teammate, Australian Jamie Dwyer.
“He has improved his field play by leaps and bounds. He listens, he learns and he is quite intelligent. He is a better player than what he was last year,” Dwyer had said.
Despite Sandeep’s tournament — he once again finished as the highest goalscorer — it’s uncertain where he lies in the national team’s scheme of things. Dwyer still reckons Rupinder Pal is better than Sandeep and VR Raghunath. Rupinder Pal didn’t have a poor tournament by any means — he finished with 6 goals — and was versatile enough to move up into midfield or revert to defense, depending on the situation. Raghunath showed the worth of his experience on the field.
The one clear loser amongst India’s drag-flickers was Gurjinder Singh. Intended as Sandeep’s replacement, Gurjinder only managed two goals and his side conceded 29 — the second-worst record of the tournament.
Jonathan is a senior correspondent based in New Delhi