Indian hockey’s best moment in recent times came without one of its best players of this generation. It may be a pure coincidence. Or it could be an indication that the team is ready to move on; that they have found a player to fill the boots many thought were too big.
India coach Roelant Oltmans used Champions Trophy – where India won a silver medal for the first time – as a platform to test various combinations. He seems to have found his option in the central midfield. And that isn’t Sardar Singh anymore. The India captain has been made to vacate the position that he virtually made his own for his understudy Manpreet Singh.
The back-to-back tournaments in London and Valencia were indications enough that Oltmans wants to utilise Sardar more as a striker instead of his usual position as a centre-half. And it’s not for the first time. Oltmans tried this at the World Hockey League finals in Raipur last year as well but the difference was evident in the two tournaments India played recently – one without Sardar and the other (six nations in Spain) where he played as a midfielder in some matches.
The reasons for this are many, but the general belief is that Sardar has been slowing down the tempo of India’s attacks by holding the ball a second longer in the midfield. “Sardar’s fitness is as good as anyone else. But sometimes, he slows down a little bit by holding the ball a bit too much. Because of that, there’s a danger of losing the ball as well,” Oltmans said on Tuesday after returning from Spain. “There’s little bit of a difference when Manpreet plays in that position compared to Sardar. He is a good option to play in the midfield and also in the forward line. The boys are giving me a lot of options. It’s good for us and confusing for opponents.”
Till not very long back, Sardar was India’s midfield maverick. No move was complete without the ball passing through him. His close control was outstanding (it still is, though not as much as before) and when in mood, he can dribble past opponents as if they don’t exist.
Sardar’s game depends on his peripheral vision. He receives the ball and through the corner of his eyes, looks for an unmarked teammate player nearest to him, repositions himself and slaps it towards the intended man.
It took an extra second for him to complete his drill, but the precision with which he did that – and the showboating of skills – separated him from the rest and even made him a strong contender for world player of the year in the last Olympic year.
But four years is a lifetime in international sport and a month ahead of Rio Games, that same routine by Sardar sticks out like a sore thumb. When playing in the middle, Sardar still receives the ball in the same manner and tries to do the same thing. However, over the years, his style has been figured out and the opponents now know just how long Sardar will hold on to the ball and the moment he tries to release it, they are ready to intercept and kill the move.
For instance, at the six-nation tournament last week, New Zealand snatched the ball from him in the midfield and launched a dangerous counter-attack. Luckily for India, it did not result in a goal.
Intensity is another issue, like Oltmans pointed out. One of the trademarks of this Indian side is the speed at which they break.
The players are quick to shift gears and move the ball swiftly while avoiding excessive running with the ball. That’s how Oltmans has built this side and against certain opponents, that’s how he wants the team to play. He wants his centre-half, a crucial position on the field, to release the ball without holding up the play and at the same time, ensure his movement in attack and defence is with same energy.
And in Manpreet, he seems to have a much better choice now than he had a year ago. The 24-year-old is seen as a natural leader within the playing group. In the Champions Trophy, he ensured the tempo of attacks did not drop when India moved forward with the ball by distributing it quickly.
At the six-nation tournament, Oltmans shuffled between Sardar and Manpreet in that position. When Sardar played, the pace of India’s attacks dropped quite a bit.
Former India captain Jagbir Singh said Sardar can contribute by playing at any position on the field. “When defending deep, he can dodge past the attackers and ensure the team is out of trouble. In the midfield, he can make his way past a couple of players and play the perfect pass. And as a forward, he can take one step to dribble past the defender, and shoot on target. He can play in any position and I believe Roelant has figured out where and how to use him in this team,” Jagbir said.
Sardar’s importance in the team remains unquestionable. A year ago, he was the calmest head in a team full of impatient and eager players a year ago. But if Champions Trophy is any evidence to go by, then that young, restless bunch has come of age and Sardar will have to reinvent himself to remain relevant.