Just days before the last Indian coach Roelant Oltmans was sacked, several seniors members, during their meeting with Hockey India top brass, had complained about the Dutchman sticking with a couple of players despite their poor form. Though, the ‘favourites’ remained unnamed, it was easy to guess where the fingers were being pointed.
With Oltmans gone, so are the two players. Former India captain Sardar Singh and striker Ramandeep Singh were the most-notable exclusions from India’s squad for the World League Finals, which begins in Bhubaneswar on December 1. Sjoerd Marijne, Oltmans’ successor, named a young squad, which will see the return of drag-flicker Rupinder Pal Singh.
Besides, being the team’s toughest test, the World League Finals also happens to the dress rehearsal for next year’s World Cup. Marijne says dropping Ramandeep and Sardar is just a ‘rotational’ policy. But the decision is not as straightforward as he makes out to be.
More than Ramandeep, though, it is Sardar’s omission that begs a bigger question: is this the beginning of the end of his storied career? Going by the initial impressions, that might just be the case.
Sardar’s spot has been in danger ever since he was dropped as the captain for the Rio Olympics last year. Off the field, the allegations of sexual harassment levelled against him by his fiance have continued to haunt him. The tipping point was during the World League semifinals in London earlier this year, where Sardar was called for questioning by Leeds police a day before India’s crucial match against Holland.
The distraction would coincide with Sardar’s dip in form. The centre-half lost a yard of his pace and his passes were being intercepted with relative ease by the opponents. At the Asia Cup last month, he was played as a full-back with current skipper Manpreet Singh occupying Sardar’s preferred position in the centre of the midfield.
The team management had earlier said they want to limit the number of tournament Sardar plays to elongate his playing career. On Friday, Marijne said he wanted to test a different combination in the defence. “I wanted to see how Rupinder Pal, (defenders) Harmanpreet Singh and Birendra Lakra combine,” Marijne says. “Sardar was there at Asia Cup and I want to see Rupinder now. That is the reason for Sardar (not being included).”
Long road back
The road back for Sardar will be long, and he knows that. At the camp, he is already spending extra hours on the field and in the gym to stay on par with his younger teammates. 2018 is a packed year, with the Commonwealth Games, Asian Games and World Cup in quick succession. It is believed that Sardar will return for at least one of the three tournaments.
But his target of playing the World Cup next year in front of home fans looks a distant possibility now. Marijne, too, isn’t giving any false assurances. “We first have to see how this tournament goes,” he says. “We will see how this combination plays and then we will see for the World Cup.”
Goalkeepers: Akash Anil Chikte, Suraj Karkera; Defenders: Harmanpreet Singh, Amit Rohidas, Dipsan Tirkey, Varun Kumar, Rupinder Pal Singh, Birendra Lakra
Midfielders: Manpreet Singh (Capt), Chinglensana Singh (Vice-Capt), SK Uthappa, Sumit, Kothajit Singh
Forwards: SV Sunil, Akashdeep Singh, Mandeep Singh, Lalit Kumar Upadhyay, Gurjant Singh.