Speed was the cornerstone of their games, as Vishwanathan Anand, Leander Paes and Sardar Singh dazzled across three of India’s most loved sports. But as years began chipping away at their blitzy instincts, even a miniscule slowing down started casting long shadows. The Indian Express looks at three end-games being tweaked and chiselled, that are defying age and refusing to go gently into the night.
Last week, Roelant Oltmans announced his core group of 33 players for the new Olympic cycle. As is the case often with team selections, the exclusion of some raised a few eyebrows. But not as much as the inclusion of one player in particular – Sardar Singh. It didn’t take much time for the whispers to grow louder: “Does he still merit a place?”A couple of years ago, it would’ve been silly to even entertain such an argument. Sardar, after all, wasn’t just the backbone of the Indian team, he was the brain as well. To borrow Nathan Lyon’s description of Virat Kohli, Sardar was head of the Indian snake, as perceived by the rivals. Curb Sardar’s creative flow and you essentially cut India out of the match.
It’s tough to pinpoint one reason why, and how, this masterful schemer turning into a struggler. For years, Sardar operated at such high level in a team riddled with mediocrity that his inevitable slide would naturally be magnified. Unfortunately for Sardar, his decline coincided with the collective improvement in the fitness and skill levels of rest of the team.
The juniors, like World Cup-winning captain Harjeet Singh, who learnt many an art looking at him are the ones snapping at his heels. In the last 12 months, Sardar has seen the captain’s armband being snatched away from him along with his preferred position in centre of the midfield.
Last year, he was dethroned as the most expensive player of the HIL as well. Off-the-field distractions, some say, have impacted his performances (he was accused of sexual harassment by his former girlfriend), which ultimately led to his position in the team being questioned.
But Australian Barry Dancer, the coach of Punjab Warriors for whom Sardar plays in the Hockey India League, can’t get his head around the flak aimed at Sardar. “He plays with great conviction and desire. He has a big heart and gives his all for the team,” Dancer had said during the HIL.
For all the criticism he faces, one thing everyone agrees on is that Sardar remains a team player, willing to adapt and open to new ideas, even if it means getting out of his comfort zone.
He began his career a decade ago as a striker. His accurate reading of the game and play-making abilities resulted in him being repositioned as a midfielder.
Jose Brasa, who coached India in the 2010 World Cup, brought him further down field. The Spaniard felt Sardar’s cool head and technical superiority could be better used if he was a sweeper back.
So sweeper back it was, then. He went on to become one of the world’s best players in that role until Michael Nobbs got him to play as a centre-half.
Last Olympics, he went back to the position where it all began; playing as a striker, with Oltmans believing that Sardar’s dribbling and off-the-ball running would be more helpful than him playing in the centre, where his impact wasn’t the same as before.
Jagbir Singh, the manager of Punjab Warriors, said Sardar was willing to contribute at all levels, trying to prove he is comfortable at multiple positions than just one.
“He played as central midfielder, libero, attacking inside. He is trying to bring more variety to his game, giving the coaches more options. It’s a tough thing at this stage,” Jagbir says.
Change in lifestyle
Recently, Sardar said the first person to remind him that he would need to alter his habits was himself.
The changes are more lifestyle oriented than his game per se. He spent a major part of his off-season last November in Germany and Holland, staying away from hockey and indulging in, among other things, working out and shopping. “There was a time when I thought about hockey all the time. I still do, but I realise now that it’s important to take some time off as well,” Sardar said. “Your body needs rest as you grow old. Recovery takes a little more time.”
When the season is on Sardar’s regimen changes. He spends a ‘little more time’ on the field after training. Jagbir said Sardar spent extra hours on field during the HIL, polishing various aspects of his game.
“If he could relax for 18 hours and play for six 10 years ago, now he doesn’t relax for more than 8 hours. He knows what he has to do at what time,” Jagbir says.
“He is concerned about what he is eating as well. As players, we tend to relax a bit and enjoy some more ice-cream. But in the 40 days of HIL, I didn’t see Sardar do that even once. He has the desire in him.” That word ‘desire’, again.
What he has lost in pace, he compensates with experience. His hopes of playing in Tokyo hinge on how well he does in the next 12 months, and if he can make it to the World Cup squad.
But Sardar has shown he can adapt, even if it means curbing his creativity to turn into a utility player, to stay relevant in the current mix.