Amidst an Indian hockey team that played more and more insipid as our Olympic campaign unfolded, one light shone bright. Sardar Singh has emerged as the pivot of the squad and the one player that India can be proud of. His performance has impressed not only the fans but has also elicited praise from other teams. Australian coach Ric Charlesworth told a veteran Indian hockey journalist that if only India had four-five Sardars, the fortunes of the squad would have been totally different.
Such is the faith of India coach Michael Nobbs in his star player that he refused to substitute him even once during the whole tournament. "I played the entire 420 minutes that India spent on field during the Olympics," Sardar smiles flexing his barb-wire tattoo on his right bicep. Sardar broke down a number of times in the team dressing room as drubbing followed drubbing.
The midfielder's great regret now is that he will not be able to get the five Olympic rings etched on his left arm as he had envisioned before coming to London. "Don't want to remember this outing," he explains, "It's been too painful". He opened up to your correspondent just hours after India had gone down 2-3 to South Africa to register its worst ever finish of 12th at the Olympics.
How can the team improve?
First, our basics need to get stronger. Trapping, controlling aerial ball are major issues. The Aussies trap balls that you would not even imagine anyone would be able to control. It's easy to stop the ball that's coming along the ground that can be done blindfolded. But some of our guys are missing even those. After that there is the bit about finishing. Mentally, our players are very weak. We have to get tougher in the head. In the striking zone, teams like Germany and Australia don't give you enough room. If you move your stick away from the ball even for a fraction of time, they snatch it away. We have to get quicker as reaction time in international hockey is now minimal - think quick and play hard.
From the first match against Holland to the one today, just see the number of chances that we failed to convert. Had we managed those, the position today would have been absolutely different.
How do we get mentally tougher?
I think the team needs a psychologist. Get some good mental trainer from abroad. It's essential, most essential. We go to play Holland and our body language is not fine, the shoulders droop. When we play a team like say, Bangladesh, everybody seems to walk taller. We need to be the same - win or lose - no matter which team we are facing. Self-belief and confidence in your teammates count a lot.
How come you are playing so solid even when no one else seems to be?
I have trained harder. In the camps when everybody stops, I continue for at least another hour to work on my weaknesses. Because of that my confidence and thought process has become totally different. All of our players need to train harder. If the individuals get better, the team becomes stronger.
Do we need more exposure against better teams?
Absolutely! Now we have two years before the Asian and Commonwealth Games and the World Cup. We need to go to the best hockey playing nations and spend time there and play a lot of matches. Only if we play high-pressure matches will we begin to figure how to handle ourselves better. Self belief and confidence will grow as we take on stronger teams. India need to play a lot more matches.
Are we fit enough?
There has been a huge difference ever since David (John, Australian physio) has joined. But we will have to be beefier like the Australians and other better teams. It will take time, of course. I also think 70% of the game is now about playing smart. Our players already have the skill, we need to get smarter out there.
What about grooming other players?
In domestic hockey, we play so relaxed. The ball comes, we look around aaramse (lazily) and then we pass. There is sufficient time. Look at any European team. The moment the ball comes on your stick, three to four players will pounce on you. The habit to react quickly has to be inculcated from the very beginning.
Sadly, for most of the players nowadays, the target is largely to get a job. They play in the India squad for some time and get that stamp. Then, their motivation seems to flag. I am planning to go back and work with four-five of the juniors, get them to train with me and build better understanding between us - that's the lesson from this outing.
What are your plans going forward?
My target is to play for another seven-eight years for India. I must maintain my fitness and keep working hard to achieve that. I have two offers - from leagues in Belgium and Holland. I think I'll go to Holland because it has a great environment for hockey and I'll get to learn a lot.
You are 27 now, what about your personal life. Girlfriend? Marriage?
Yes, I have one. It's hockey! But there are enough friends (grins). Wherever we go there are friends (grins some more). I don't want to get married yet. I want to play solid hockey without distraction for a couple of more years, will figure then.
After a medal? But Rio is four years away!
Yes. There is also the Asian Games and the World Cup before that. I need to work harder to get India back to where it belongs in world hockey. I'll keep working till Rio. Dil tagra hona chahi da, hockey dil da khel hai (You have to have resolve, hockey is not for the faint hearted).