Reputations in hockey have always counted for a lot. If you’re a big name with a decent game, you would not just survive but thrive. Think of Sandeep Singh and Bharat Chetri from the last Olympics. These are just two names from a long list stretching over decades.
But not anymore. On Tuesday, the biggest faces of the men’s and women’s teams were shown the mirror by team management.
Sardar Singh, the face of men’s hockey for quite some time, was replaced as the captain for the Rio Olympics by PR Sreejesh. While on the women’s side, Ritu Rani was sacked from the team on disciplinary ground.
Instead, young Sushila Chanu was chosen to lead the Olympic debutants.
And even though Sardar insisted he wasn’t disappointed, his face told a different story. The ousted captain of the tried to keep poker face. But he looked visibly shaken by the recent turn of events. Till a month ago, he was seen as an undisputed leader of a team constantly punching above its weight. But a dip in form on field and controversies off it saw his stock fall. And it plummeted to its lowest on Tuesday, when he was stripped off the captaincy for the Rio Games.
At least Sardar managed to hold on to his position in the Rio-bound squad. His counterpart in the women’s team – Ritu Rani – was nowhere to be seen. One of the senior-most players who has been instrumental in the team ending its three-decade wait to take part in the Olympics, Rani was not only sacked as the captain but also omitted from the team owing to her poor attitude and fitness.
She left the national camp in Bangalore last week in a huff upon learning her fate, possibly bringing an abrupt end to her remarkable career.
Narinder Batra, Hockey India president, says the selections were made purely on merit. “Reputation is your perspective. We had certain set parameters to select the team and have stuck to it,” he says.
Within those ‘certain set parameters’, Sardar – it is learnt – just about made the cut. According to a source, there was a debate over his inclusion in the team during the meeting last Tuesday after chief coach Roelant Oltmans suggested he should be included in the squad as a forward and not midfielder, which is his primary position.
“A few selectors argued that if he isn’t good enough to be included as a midfielder, then it made no sense to take him as a striker. It would also result in blocking a slot for a proper forward,” a source said.
Eventually, logic prevailed. He may not be at his best, but Sardar has done enough to retain his place in the team.
Even as a forward in the last couple of tournaments, he has scored important field goals and Oltmans was determined not to leave one of his most experienced players out.
Ultimately, Sardar was included as a midfielder.
But the fact that the team management even flirted with the idea of dropping Sardar, once considered irreplaceable, showed how far this side has come. In Sreejesh, the team has an able captain. His deputy will be SV Sunil, who has shown in the Champions Trophy and six-nation in Valencia how much he enjoys this responsibility.
On the other hand, Oltmans hopes taking responsibility off Sardar’s shoulder will help him find his old form back.
“The philosophy behind changing the captain is that we felt people need to take more responsibilities on the pitch and off the pitch. Sardar was taking too much responsibilities because of which he was not performing at the level that is expected of him,” the Dutchman said. “By changing the captain I belive Sardar will play a much better Olympic Games. Sardar took the decision (of him being removed from captaincy) very sportingly. He understands what’s required from him.”
Oltmans added that the off-field controversy that has followed Sardar has affected him. The 29-year-old has been accused of rape by a British national, who is likely to appear before a magistrate on July 15 to present her version. Sardar said he was focussed on the Olympics. “People are trying to distract me but my target is to give my best at the Olympics,” he said. “For us, it is time to be together and make the team more strong and give our best in the Olympics.”
With a case against him and captaincy snatched from him, Sardar reiterated that his focus is only on hockey. Perhaps he has heard message loud and clear – reputations will count for nothing now on.