October 2011. India, Australia’s favourite whipping boys, succumb to yet another five-goal margin defeat to the world champions. There’s nothing redeeming about India in the 8-3 loss. Except one – Sardar Singh’s performance. So good is he, in fact, that after the match, Ric Charlesworth walks up to him and jokes about the midfielder giving up Indian citizenship to play for Australia.
There couldn’t have been a bigger compliment for any player. This was an Australian team from another planet and their coach felt Sardar was a natural fit in his set-up. It was a testimony to what’s been an overwhelming feeling in world hockey – Sardar could walk into any playing XI in the world. But on Wednesday, the former India captain chose to walk away from his own team.
Moments after he was dropped from the national camp in the lead-up to November’s World Cup, Sardar announced his sudden retirement from international hockey.
“Been around for 12 years,” he said, “got to pass on the baton to the next generation.” He made it sound like his own decision. But the timing and the manner he did it leaves little doubt that he was boxed into a corner, especially after the team’s inability to retain the Asian Games gold that they won under his captaincy four years ago. Arguably the best Indian player since the turn of the century alongside Dhanraj Pillay, Sardar leaves desolate, broken, and one who overstayed his welcome. But he’ll be remembered for changing the face of Indian hockey, be it culturally (from cups of milky, sugary chai before games to steaming hot black coffee) or playing style (from jalebi hockey to a crisp, counter-attacking style).
For a major part of his 12-year career, Sardar, 32, shone with individual brilliance in a team brimming with mediocrity. In a decade when India obsessed over the European style, Sardar stood out with his inherent Indian ways. When in the mood, he dribbled like a Brazilian at football. His passing was stunningly perceptive, and close control miraculous. But that’s where the Indianness generally ended. He was all about peripheral vision. Even before he would receive the ball, Sardar remained on the lookout for hints with the corner of his eyes. It could be colour of the kit, the stick, socks – anything really. Once he’d spot a teammate, he would simply reposition himself and with a flick of the wrist, slap it towards the intended man. That he made a series of complex motions, processed and played out in milliseconds, look so ridiculously easy was his genius.
Weaving magic on the field
Sardar weaved magic on the field, but it was a greater joy watching him train. Even today, he’d be the last one to leave the field on most days. In those 30-odd minutes, he’d experiment new moves by himself, some times with his white earphones plugged in, listening to Punjabi pop.
During a national camp in Pune back in 2010, a few weeks before the World Cup, Sardar tried a reverse-flick pass, with an idea to find the right-winger from the centre of the field by deceiving his marker. It was the first time he’d tried that and the ball harmlessly rolled out of play, yards away from his target man. He spent that night watching dozens of videos of Lionel Messi, Andrea Pirlo and Xavi Hernandez on loop, observing how each of them created space and delivered an inch-perfect pass despite being marked closely by so many defenders, and noting their body movements and positioning. The next morning, he had a long conversation with then coach Jose Brasa. “He repeated that pass a thousand times for the next few days till he perfected it,” Brasa had recently said. Over the years, it became his trademark, a pass he could execute with his eyes closed. But he wasn’t always stubborn about his ideas. While he remains the player to keep the ‘Indian style’ relevant, Sardar actually enhanced it by adopting a few European traits. He became obsessed with fitness, leading a cultural change in the dressing room where drinking black coffee became the norm before a match. His finesse and fitness inspired a generation of players, including many who were his teammates. Defender and drag-flicker Rupinderpal Singh has spoken of Sardar as a role model and, like him, he started spending a good amount of time practising alone after the rest of the team was done whereas Manpreet Singh, a centre-half like Sardar, has modelled his game on his former captain.
But as he lived in the bubble of being one of the best exponents of his art, Sardar missed an opportunity to contribute to Indian hockey in bigger ways. Some of his teammates have often expressed disappointment over how he rarely stood up for them against the federation like Dhanraj Pillay did. He formed an image of being the establishment’s man and missed the opportunity to be the statesman. Even within the team, Sardar could’ve left a lasting legacy by wielding his influence and using his stature responsibly to end the culture of cliques and coteries. Instead, he let it fester. That he got embroiled in issues of his own weakened his position in the team.
For the last two years, Sardar had been battling allegations of sexual harassment by his ex-girlfriend. The court cases and police investigations followed him wherever he went, and although nothing could be proven, the issue had a massive impact on his performances on field, where he slowed down and errors crept into his game. In a recent interview to this paper, he admitted that the case and the uncertainty over his role in the team left him low mentally. It could’ve been over for him last October itself, when then coach Sjoerd Marijne told him his time was up after the Asia Cup. He fought back and returned as one of the fittest players in the team but it’d became laborious to watch him, as was evident at the Asian Games.
It may have been forced, but perhaps Sardar wanted to put himself out of his misery. This wasn’t the player Charlesworth would’ve wanted in his Australian team.