Over his long international career, Sardar Singh often left hockey lovers gasping with his skills with the stick. His peripheral vision, sixth sense about where a teammate would be, the blind pass, and uncanny tackling ability ensured he was part of numerous All-Star XIs.
However, hockey is a team sport and the midfielder par excellence had precious few moments when he tasted triumph as part of the national team. India, during his playing days, would often promise much before faltering in crunch situations, be it conceding last-minute goals or squandering gilt-edged scoring opportunities.
However, the 2014 Incheon Asian Games was one occasion when everything fell into place and India not only secured its third gold medal but also a direct berth for the 2016 Rio Olympics.
“It was our first gold in 16 years and is one of the happiest memories of my career,” Sardar looks back. “It was the result of complete unity of purpose in our batch. Everyone’s thinking was the same.”
Laying the foundation
Hockey India has often been flayed for its hire-and-fire policy of coaches. Hardly any head coach, especially foreigner, stays in the job for a significant length of time, which also breeds confusion among players.
But the arrival of Australian Terry Walsh, a silver medallist at the 1976 Montreal Olympics with successful coaching stints in the Netherlands and his home country, was a step in the right direction, feels Sardar, the captain at that time.
“We had Roelant Oltmans as the high performance director and with Terry’s arrival, we had a great combination of coaches. I always believe that whosoever is selected to play for the country already knows hockey. Only proper direction is needed,” he says.
The hockey competition in Incheon was scheduled from September 20-October 2. The training camp before the tournament was held at New Delhi’s Major Dhyan Chand National Stadium, and Sardar remembers the toil the players went through.
“It was peak summer in North India and the stadium had big stands on every side so there was very little air circulation. It was a 40-day camp and several friendships developed there. But the training sessions were so intense that we often felt that we would collapse.
“When Walsh joined us, we were in Bhopal. He decided to lay special emphasis on fitness. We had to complete 400m sprints in groups within a particular time, and used to be left gasping at the end. The coach also made us swim at the Talkatora Stadium pool.”
It’s not that the technical skills of the game were ignored. “We had days earmarked for a particular aspect. For example, one full session was dedicated to the slap shot,” Sardar recalls.
No detail was left to chance and the team reached Incheon 10-12 days before the competition. “We had seven or eight training sessions at the venue and acclimatised properly. We were full of confidence when the tournament began.”
September 25, 2014
India were in the same pool as Pakistan and it was always going to be the key clash. Sri Lanka and Oman were swept aside easily before the contest against the neighbours.
After a goalless first half, Pakistan went ahead through Muhammad Umar Bhutta. Nikkin Thimmaiah netted the equaliser but Muhammad Waqas scored what turned out to be the winner a minute later. “It was a case of a few small mistakes that decided the outcome,” the captain remembers. “We were disappointed, but not disheartened. We knew we were still in the tournament. We had a team bonding session late in the evening and looked forward to the next game.”
What helped matters was that it was quite an experienced bunch of players. “Guys like Gurbaj Singh, Dharamvir Singh and Danish Mujtaba had a lot of games behind them and knew what needed to be done,” Sardar says.
India needed to beat China in their last group game to make sure of a semi-final spot and after another barren first half, VR Raghunath and Birendra Lakra struck in quick succession to settle matters.
Taking down the hosts
September 30, 2014
By finishing second in the group, India had made matters tougher for themselves as they had to take on hosts South Korea in the semifinals. The East Asians had advanced with a perfect pool record, scoring 25 goals and conceding just one.
“Playing against the home country is always tough, with the whole crowd behind them. Marginal decisions also usually went in their favour as there were no video referrals there. We conceded a penalty corner when I knew the ball had struck my hand and not the foot. But we were determined to keep our shape and discipline and avoid any cards. Our focus was rewarded as we kept the Koreans at bay and Akashdeep (Singh) scored the only goal of the match,” Sardar reminisces.
‘Just another game’
October 2, 2014
On the morning of a big final against the arch rivals, one expects players to be super-excited with butterflies in the stomach. But the midfield general of yesteryears provides a different perspective. “We were not emotional or nervous, but calm. We knew we had done our homework and were expected to be in the final. The preparation was like what we had before any other game.
“Our plan was to play with energy from the start and execute our strategy, so even when Pakistan took an early lead (through Muhammad Rizwan senior in the third minute), we didn’t panic. I told my players that there was a lot of time left and we needed to play with discipline and stick to the plan.
“Pakistani fans are always very abusive and it was no different in this match. But we knew it would happen and were determined not to react,” Sardar gives a glimpse into the team’s mindset.
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Before the half-hour mark, Kothajit Singh had restored parity. There were no more goals in the match, but no dearth of action either. The skipper made a special mention about his custodian, who came to India’s rescue on more than one occasion. “(PR) Sreejesh was our rock. His body language too was such that it unnerved advancing attackers.”
Head coach Walsh was prepared for this scenario as well. “He had decided on the players to be entrusted in the high-pressure scenario. I had a 50-50 record in training sessions, and was left out,” Sardar recalls.
When Akashdeep converted the first attempt from the 25-yard line and Abdul Haseem Khan didn’t, it put the Indians in front. Even though Manpreet Singh missed the third attempt, Sreejesh again rose to the occasion against Bhutta. All it needed now was Dharamvir to find the target, and he put the finishing touches on India’s campaign.
“It was a very proud moment for me as the captain,” Sardar looks back. “It was particularly significant as there were a few youngsters in the team playing their first Asian Games and they had a taste of victory,” he adds.
Ask about the celebration after the final and he replies wryly: “You know these foreign coaches. They are very professional and don’t allow you to let your hair down too much. We were given a bit of free time, had a team get-together before we had to pack our bags and prepare for the return home.”
Indian hockey teams over the past few decades have seldom pulled in the same direction, and it has often pulled them down. The 2014 Asian Games squad was a team in every sense. What was the secret? “All the players bonded very well,” Sardar reflects. “At the Games village, 8-10 players shared a large room. There was discipline and strict rules about mobile usage. Nobody used to stay awake late as a good sleep was crucial. Recovery and proper diet were looked into.”
“Also, whenever we went out, even to a restaurant, the whole squad went together. When the other teams saw us moving together even off the ground, it exuded a different kind of feeling,” Sardar feels. And to think that the Aussie architect of India’s golden hour was gone a little over a month later.
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