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Friday, September 17, 2021

Simranjeet Singh: Dribbler on the roof

Simranjeet Singh, who has skills reminiscent of Dhanraj Pillay and riffs off Lionel Messi, sizzled with his stick-work in Tokyo to emerge as a shining star on hockey's highest stage — the Olympics.

Written by Sandeep Dwivedi |
Updated: August 22, 2021 6:19:43 pm
Simranjeet Singh (10) celebrates after scoring against Spain (Source: AP)

Within minutes of the interview where he rather reluctantly talks about scoring a Lionel Messi kind of goal as a junior, Simranjeet Singh, the scorer of two of India’s five goals in the bronze-medal match against Germany, sends across a video. The 24-second clip is a validation of the 24-year-old’s claim.

The action is from an India-Holland away game from 2016. It’s probably shot by the team’s computer analyst from the stands. Receiving the ball on the right, Simranjeet is close to the sideline and just inside the opposition’s 25-yards. It’s a position from where the less-ambitious forwards run down the flank, slap in a centre and pray that the ball finds a teammate’s stick in the crowded D. The handful who trust their quick hands, lightning-fast feet, look up to Dhanraj Pillay and are in a habit of watching Messi on loop go straight into the heart of the opposition. Simranjeet is one of them.

The shortest route to the goal is expectedly crowded. At one point he has two defenders in front and two biting at his heel. His speed and stickwork make him unstoppable. He has passing options, a couple of forwards can be seen running, breaking free from their markers but Simranjeet, as his idol would have done, decides to go solo.

On entering the D, two more Dutch players zero in to poke at the ball, stifle the run. Not going to work today. The ball, like a pet on a stretchable leash, doesn’t run astray. The blur with a white patka keeps storming ahead. So far six rivals have been left in his wake, now there’s just the goalkeeper to beat. Simranjeet just about manages — stumbling, falling but still connecting the ball with a reverse swing.

Change the sport, replace the astro-turf with natural grass and it could well be Messi cutting in with his trademark hustle from the right, conning the defenders on the way and beating the goalkeeper with that magical left, barely able to stay on his feet after the frenzied run. Simranjeet says he had once seen Messi go past four players and score from a similar movement from the right and it stayed with him. “That day I thought what Messi does, it can also happen to me in real life,” he says.

In the dug-out that day was Harendra Singh, who was India’s junior coach then. It’s been close to five years, Harendra has moved on. He is in charge of the US junior national side, presently in Santiago, Chile for the PanAm Cup. He still recalls Simranjeet’s Messi goal. “I stood up and gave him a standing ovation with my hands folded. The entire stadium was on their feet, the opposition players were laughing, there was a sense of disbelief on their faces.”

A hockipedia and a life-long student of the game, Harendra is known to have the knack to spot talent. His judgment carries weight. He calls Simranjeet’s skills unique. “Such skills I have only seen in Baljeet Singh Dhillon and Dhanraj Pillay. Out of 100 players, maybe there will be just 1 such player. He is a solo player with great dodge and ball awareness. You need three skills to be such a good player — Simran has all three. He has skills to go right, left and also the 3D skill – the ability to dodge, pass and score with the lifted ball,” he says.

It’s been a long day for Harendra, most of it is eaten by his 14-hour long flight. But a text seeking his reaction for a story on Simranjeet, the player he rates as the finest goal-scorer and feeder in the 2016 Junior World Cup-winning team he coached, gets a quick reply. He says he is glad that the young boy is getting media attention. “No one is writing about them, they are the unsung heroes.”

He has a point. The fourth quarter nervousness of the bronze medal play-off, the draining relief of Sreejesh’s penalty corner stop and the teary sight of Manpreet Singh leading the team on the podium after 41 years, made an overwhelmed India miss the trees for the wood.

The dazzle of Neeraj Chopra’s final day gold was so blinding that there was no time to put the hockey bronze under the microscope. The individual efforts however grand — including Simranjeet scoring two heart-warming field-goals – hung innocuously in the brief scores section below lofty reports about big hockey revival.

The subtle but significant changes to Indian hockey got overshadowed by the nation’s biggest-ever Olympic haul. Now that the celebratory dhols at the airport have died down, it’s time to gloat over the 20-something forwards Gurjant Singh, Hardik Singh and Simranjeet, who, unlike past Olympians, didn’t freeze at the finish line. They weren’t anything like the other nervous Olympic newbies. They tried and pulled off audacious goals. They nutmegged reputed goalkeepers in do-or-die games. They even made the Germans wilt under pressure. All that bunched together, they did their bit in rebranding Indian hockey. Simranjeet, the poster boy of this change, embodies the subtle but significant change. The one who follows Dhanraj’s hockey ethos but has Messi on his mind.

Simranjeet Singh of India celebrates with teammates after scoring during the men’s hockey bronze medal play-off. (Reuters)

For the untrained eye, Simranjeet comes across as a classic Indian player, a flamboyant dribbler from the land of Dhyan Chand and Mohammed Shahid. But there is more to the story. He is way too respectful to distance himself from this flattering comparison but very politely he begs to differ.

“People tell me I have a typical Indian game, I love to listen to such praise and I am proud of it but I am not a typical Indian hockey player. I have to adapt to the modern game,” he says. A mix of Messi and a typical Indian hockey player? “Yes,” he replies with a broad smile.

Hockey for Simranjeet is a 24×7 obsession. So even while watching football on television, he visualises Messi with a hockey stick or him in a Barcelona T-shirt at Nou Camp. “International football is covered by cameras from all angles, there are even shots from the top. This gives you an idea about the position and the structure a team adopts. Hockey has been adopting the football structure for a while now. As the ball moves from one player to another, I put myself in that situation and I keep asking questions – what I would do if I was in that position, it helps me to take the right call in a real match situation,” he says.

A compulsive dribbler while growing up in Punjab’s Gurdaspur, coaches have repeatedly instructed Simranjeet to be selective about his solo run. With time, he would earmark areas on the field where he allows his inner Dhanraj/Messi to emerge. “If I lose the ball because of my dodge it can go against the team. So I avoid them when I am in my half. But in case I am inside the rival 25 yards and in the D, I am free to do whatever.” The mere thought of flying on the turf, weaving between defenders brings a smile to his face.

‘Were you a natural dribbler, someone born with the skill?’ Simranjeet smirks, it’s a question that undermines the countless hours he spent running around with the ball on his stick. Both he and coach Harendra reject the romantic notions that dribblers are Special Ones handpicked by the sporting Gods. They talk about the boring practice routines that shape an entertaining player. The painstaking background checks of opponents and the monotony of repetitions during training. There is also talk about the science of hoodwinking a defender and the lifelong pursuit of remaining unpredictable, the key for a successful dribble.

“On the morning of the match, I visualise the defender I will be up against. We look for their weak points, I take each defender and see “woh kidhar dodge kha sakta hai” – right or left. We observe them very closely, we really go into the details of how they react,” says the forward.

Stage two is about weaponising the data. “Suppose you have the ball and there’s another forward joining you in the attack. In that case, the defenders have two things in mind — I have to stop the pass or I have to avoid the dodge. So my job is to guess what he is thinking,” he says. At this point, with the defender’s weakness stored at the back of the mind, the player looks for on-field clues. “If his position and angle of the stick is suggesting that he is going to stop the pass in that case I try to dodge him. And if he has the intention to stop me individually, in that case I will look to pass the ball.” Mention his breath-taking dribble during the quarter-final against Great Britain at the Olympics that had the commentators jump out of their chair and call it “the dodge of the tournament” so that Simranjeet breaks it down. He, almost apologetically, goes blank. He mumbles a soft ‘is it’, a softer ‘maybe’, before giving up. What follows is a scientific explanation and it isn’t about him being forgetful.

“You train so much, you pore over the data for so long that it stays in your subconscious mind. And during the game when you have to fashion the dodge in that fraction of a second, the subconscious mind tells you which way you need to go,” he says. So that special dodge against Great Britain was the mind reacting quickly and asking the limbs to make those game-changing split-second binary ‘dribble or pass’ decisions. Effortlessness isn’t easy, it comes after putting in a lot of effort.

The teacher in Harendra throws in an analogy. “These boys train to increase awareness and deal with all kinds of tackles. They master the skill needed for every situation. I keep telling my boys, the head is the CPU of the computer and when you are training all information is in there. Once you are in the game, that same CPU, loaded with information, will transmit the instruction to the hands and legs.”

Simranjeet Singh of India celebrates with Gurjant Singh after scoring against Germnay in bronze medal match. (Reuters)

The uploading of information has been on since the time Simranjeet left home in UP’s Pilibhit when he was in Class V. His uncle in Gurdaspur had seen a spark in him, he didn’t want it to go waste. Young Simranjeet found himself in a village where every kid played hockey and elders discussed the nuance of the game at street corners. It is a place where passer-bys stop in their tracks to change the grip of budding players or stuff notes in their pockets for a delectable nutmeg. Hockey expertise isn’t confined to academies around here.

Simranjeet would follow his elder cousins — one of them Gurjant, the one who found him in the crowd of German defenders with a delectable minus pass for India’s game-winning final goal in the bronze medal game – to the ground. After the day’s training, Simranjeet says he wouldn’t be bothered about the lack of company and work on his ball skills, try new things, polish old tricks.

Is Simran a loner? Harendra kills the enticing storyline of a boy away from his parents from an early age making the hockey stick and the ball his best friends. “No, no … no way. Just ask anyone, he was the darling of the team. He was the most intelligent player in my team. His company was sought by everyone, especially when they were going out shopping. His friends from Punjab would take him with them since he is well-versed in English. He knows how to talk, carry himself, how to discuss and how to bargain for others with shopkeepers,” he says.

The fact that Simranjeet was the last-minute inclusion to the Olympic squad, wasn’t played in the first two games at Tokyo and even missed the semi-final against Belgium seems to rankle his one-time coach. “He has untapped talent, people have a tendency to take him lightly,” says Harendra. And in the tone that indulgent teachers save for their favourites, he refers to his not quite chiseled face. “Yeh golu-molu (chubby face) lagta hai so people think he is unfit, but I will tell you he is the fittest guy and he has a great temperament. It was him and Gurjant who scored in the junior World Cup final in 2016.” Incidentally, Simranjeet’s Junior World Cup goal was similar to his first strike against Germany – a tomahawk cracker from the top of the D. The boy with a beep test reading of 24 has fast legs and faster hands.

The golu-molu is also a hare-footed forward – that’s a deception made in heaven for this compulsive dribbler.

Simranjeet on his bronze-medal game goals

First goal (17th minute, India draw level at 1-1)
He receives the ball inside the D with his back towards the goal. A quick turn to the right, he connects with a powerful backhand shot that grazes past the right post.

Simranjeet: That’s my favourite goal, one I will never ever forget. I had just entered the game and before that I had received a nice slap-ball from Harmanpreet that I had failed to stop and it had hit my foot. So I needed to make amends. That was when I also realised that the Germans were doing zonal marking and were focused on Mandeep, they didn’t want him to receive the ball. I told Mandeep that they are focusing on you and they wouldn’t allow you to take an open try so you have to make space for me. This is exactly what he did. I had shrugged off my marker when Nilakanta (Sharma) slapped the ball to me in the gap. And all I did was stop the ball and flick it. I didn’t know where the ball was going. The point is if you take a hit within seconds of receiving the goalkeeper has no chance to stop the ball. The goalkeeper is standing in the centre position because he was in my line. If you are at the centre that’s where the goalkeeper is going to place himself. By my quick turn and flick, I hit the ball at the angle of the goalkeeper. He was beaten by my turn.

Second goal (34th minute, India extends lead to 5-3)
Gurjant runs to the baseline from the right, moves towards the goal and passes the ball to Simranjeet in front of the goal, who taps it in.

Simranjeet: Before the Germany game, we had missed four to five goals by making the mistake of waiting on the second post. Our opponents – Germany, Argentina, Great Britain – they are all very physically fit. They don’t let you come in front of them. Germany is a very physical team and they use their body a lot. We noticed that the Germans have a kind of thumb rule – they don’t look at the ball, they mark the player who is in their goal-scoring zone. Inside the D, the forward does the action and the defender reacts. The defender has no idea where I am going to receive the ball. So we had trained to be deceptive – we planned to show them that we are at a certain place but quickly change position. Gurjant and I had trained for this. Whenever a player is coming from the baseline, he has two options. Either he gives a minus pass or he tries to score from a zero angle, but it isn’t easy to score from there. So we train that whenever someone is getting in with the ball from the baseline, he needs to look up once and weigh the options. So when Gurjant moved in, he looked up once and that was my moment of moving to the first post. He got the clue and passed the ball to first post. I got infront of one defender, dived between the other two and deflected his pass into the goal.

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