The year 2008 was, without a doubt, the darkest for Indian hockey. The twin blows of not qualifying for the Beijing Olympics and a sting operation that caught the then secretary of the national federation accepting bribes to include a player in the team had shaken the sport’s soul. There was, though, the proverbial silver lining from the unlikeliest of places — the Azlan Shah Cup.
Still reeling from the shock of missing the Olympics, the IHF wasn’t keen on sending a team to Ipoh despite being invited by their Malaysian counterparts. But with an eye on the 2009 junior World Cup — and the federation’s internal wrangling with some senior players — it was decided to send a young team, with Sardar Singh as the captain.
Sardar still wasn’t the player that he would eventually become but he was quietly growing in reputation — in the first half of 2008, he was the only player who featured in every match India played. Azlan Shah, however, was when he would truly arrive on the scene. On his captaincy debut, Sardar led an Indian team comprising 12 junior players to its first final at the tournament in 13 years, eventually settling for silver. Crucially, it marked the team’s revival from its darkest phase. Sardar played a pivotal role as India gradually clawed its way back among the hockey elite.
A decade later, Sardar arrives in Ipoh once again as the leader of a young group but this time, with the hope of finding a second wind.
There have been strong suggestions that the week-long tournament, starting Saturday, will be Sardar’s swansong. Handing him the captain’s armband, sources say, is to ensure he goes out with dignity and if Sardar himself does not announce his retirement after the tournament, he will be overlooked for future tournaments as coach Sjoerd Marijne is keen on having younger, quicker players in his team. The 31-year-old denies receiving any such ultimatum and has vowed to carry on till November’s World Cup at the very least. The team management, too, has dissed the theory but they acknowledge that Sardar will have to ‘prove himself’ at Azlan Shah to stay in contention for next month’s Commonwealth Games. “You cannot deny that his place in the team is not indispensible anymore,” says former India coach AK Bansal, who made Sardar the captain in 2008. “But if he is used smartly, his experience can be valuable to the young squad especially since the team will be playing some very important tournaments this year.”
Bansal makes two points — using him ‘smartly’ and ‘experience’ — which are crucial. A parallel can be drawn with Australia’s utilization of their talismanic defender Mark Knowles. He led Australia to World Cup glory in 2014 aged 31. Since then, he has been coming off the bench for short durations instead of playing for long periods in one go.
Doing so helped Knowles prolong his career and also ensure a smooth transition after several established players quit in the interim and the Kookaburras are once again the favourites going into the World Cup this year. India may not be as good as Australia but Sardar is in the same league as Knowles.
With Marijne focussing on giving youngsters more opportunities, Sardar’s experience can be valuable. At the World League Final in Bhubaneswar last December, the team was found wanting in crunch situations and even though captain Manpreet Singh is more effective as a centre-half than Sardar, he — at times — wasn’t able to cope up with the pressure on field.
To cut him some slack, the World League was Manpreet’s first major tournament as a captain at home and he did not have PR Sreejesh, too, in his corner. The pressure will ratchet up at the World Cup and Asian Games, where India could do with a few calm heads on the field. Sardar has also shown the willingness adapt. In the last two years, Sardar has been made to play in all three areas of the field to keep him relevant in the team. Former coach Roelant Oltmans tried to accommodate him as a forward, hoping that his dribbling skills would come in handy in the opponent’s ‘D’.
At the Olympics, he returned to his preferred position in the central midfield, which allowed him to control the play. But Sardar was accused of slowing down the game by holding the ball for a wee bit longer, which took the sting off India’s quick counterattacks. That, coupled with Manpreet Singh’s growing stature, meant Sardar had to play second fiddle to the player he once mentored.
Once it was established that Manpreet was preferred over Sardar as a centre-half, the former captain was forced to drop further back. In his first tournament as coach last year — the Asia Cup — Marijne made Sardar play as a defender. In the tournament that mattered — the World League Final — Sardar was dropped, with Marijne choosing younger players. It was another reminder for Sardar that his place in the squad was in danger – not that he needed any reminding.
“I know where I lack and I get constant feedback from the coach. That is the reason why I spend extra hours in the gym and rest a lot more to ensure my body recovers well. I need to take care of my body to ensure the performances are good on the field,” Sardar had earlier said.
At the Azlan Shah, Sardar will be back at his favoured position in the centre of the pitch. His ageing body has found it increasingly difficult to keep up with the quick, fresh legs around him in the last few tournaments. Whether he has the legs to survive the pace remains to be seen. Athletes often look for good omen. As Sardar returns to the venue, and tournament, where it all kick-started for him 10 years ago, he will hope this time, he will be able to script his own revival.