They could well inspire a sequel to the blockbuster, Sholay. Even as one speaks to them, one is reminded of the chartbuster song from the movie, ‘Yeh dosti, hum nahin chhorenge’. Such is the chemistry between Sandeep Singh and Sardar Singh, the two famous sardars of Indian hockey, that even as one expresses his disagreement, the other vigorously shakes his head to echo his friend’s viewpoint. It’s a surprise they actually play in different positions! While Sandeep is the key in deep defence and is the drag-flick specialist, Sardar is the livewire in the middle, distributing precise passes and dictating the attacks.
“Friendship means everything to us,” says Sandeep, the elder of the two. “Even in the worst of times, we stood for each other. It’s because of that we have been able to perform.”
“People sometimes ask if we are brothers. We only say we are more than that,” chips in Sardar. India rode on their shoulders to cross the major hurdle of qualifying for the London Games. The country is now looking up to the duo to revive the lost glory in hockey. Life has come a full circle since they were on the verge of quitting the sport together after abandoning the national camp. It’s nothing short of a miracle that they are still on the right side of the establishment and playing together.
Out of favour
The signs were ominous when Sandeep and Sardar decided to leave the camp early last year to play in the Belgian league without informing the powers that be. This did not go down well with the administration and they were dropped for the Azlan Shah tournament. But the issue hogged the headlines and pitch-forked the duo into limelight like never before. The simmering discontent came to a boil again in August during the camp for the Asian Champions Trophy. Both quit the camp alleging “rough treatment from the coaching staff” and boarded the flight back home. A two-year ban slapped by the disciplinary committee threatened to end their careers. A written apology pacified the federation and they were allowed into the team hotel again.
Talk to them about that turbulent phase and they say they were left with no option. “Some officials in the camp blamed us of selfish play. The episode upset us so much that we decided to not just leave the camp, but also to quit the sport,” says Sardar.
“Later, after our victory in the Asian Champions Trophy, we did realise that hockey was our life and we couldn’t live without it. We shouldn’t have taken such an extreme step,” says Sandeep.
If this was a career-changing episode for the duo, it took a life-threatening incident for Sandeep to realise the virtues of willpower. A freak incident in 2006 — the weapon in the hands of a security officer seated behind him in the train accidentally went off and the bullet pierced the lower abdomen of the player — threatened his life, leave alone his career.
“I remember him saying in the ICU ‘coach sahib, I will play again … tusi fikar na karo (you don’t worry)’ . That day I marvelled his willpower,” recalls the then national coach, Harendra Singh. The injury kept him out of action for more than a year but he came back strongly, guiding India to silver in the 2008 Azlan Shah Cup. Today, his ferocious drag-flicks are the talking point in every rival camp.
It was in 2003 that the coach of the junior India team noticed a tall guy standing near the post at the Dhyanchand Stadium, and asked him if he would like to join the camp. “With the 2005 junior WC in mind, I asked him if he would like to be included and he said yes. He faced many fitness issues because of which I drew a lot of criticism. But he worked hard and became an integral part of the squad that won 52 matches between 2003 and 2005,” says Harendra.
Sandeep’s performance in the 2004 Asia Cup in Karachi, where he played a crucial role in the country's 5-2 win over Pakistan, got him a place in the Athens Olympics squad. Sandeep was dropped from the Beijing Games qualifying tournament, where India missed the bus to the Olympics for the first time ever. The tattoo of ‘Olympics Rings’ on his forearm keeps reminding him of the pain of getting dropped.
Admiring his brother
Few know that Sardar is the younger brother of Didar Singh, who also donned India colours. “I have always admired Didar’s style of play,” says Sardar.
The sturdy player reveals he tried out all positions before settling down as a linkman. Sardar started off as ‘right in’, shifted to defence after the 2010 World Cup, and last year finally realised that his best position was in the midfield.
“I have played in all positions except under the bar,” he jokes. “When I was told to play as defender, I got confused because I was a prolific scorer. But I realised that in a team game, individual aspirations should take a backseat,” he says, with Sandeep nodding in unison.
With the defence and midfield covered, it’s time to launch the attack. The goal is London.