Hockey captain Manpreet Singh: The #HiddenHero of sport more Indians should know about
On 18th June, 2017, 11 Indian men took the country to an embarrassing 180-run defeat at the hands of arch rival Pakistan in the finals of the ICC Champions Trophy at the Oval. Elsewhere, in London, another 11 Indian men hammered Pakistan to a 7-1 defeat in what is actually our country’s national game, hockey. The person responsible for this victory is the 25-year-old Manpreet Singh.
Followers of the sport will argue that the win against Pakistan offered pride, and little else. To them, and other critics, here’s news: just a few days ago, Manpreet led the Indian side to win against the invincible Dutch, and then the Austrians.
But...we bet you didn’t know that. Because unless you’re a serious fan of sports, chances are you don’t know Manpreet Singh at all. Even if you have heard of him, he’s likely to be just one more non-cricket sportsman to you: someone who wouldn’t be noticed unless he did something dramatic, such as bring home an Olympic gold or win a World Cup.
Manpreet does intend to go after dramatic wins. He may be a new captain of the national hockey team, but he has plenty of previous leadership experience: the midfielder captained the junior men’s team in the Hero FIH Hockey Junior Men’s World Cup, and also in the third Sultan of Johor Cup in 2013, when the team brought home the gold. Being named ‘Junior Player of the Year’ by the Asian Hockey Federation in 2014 only underlined his talent, because Manpreet has hockey in his blood.
Born to a farmer in Mithapur near Jalandhar, Manpreet grew up playing hockey. His two older brothers are also hockey players. “My first inspiration to play the game came from Pargat Singh, the former captain of the Indian hockey team, and DSP of my district,” says Manpreet, taking a break from his training schedule at the Sports Authority of India campus in Bengaluru to chat with HT Brunch. “Besides that, I was attracted by the prizes my brothers received when they won matches.”
That meant nothing to his mother however, her youngest boy was certainly not going to be like his older brothers and break his nose during a game! “But I insisted on learning hockey,” says Manpreet. “One day, when I was 10 years old, as I was about to leave for coaching, my brother locked me in a room. However, I managed to get out and join him at the coaching ground. My brother got angry and was about to hit me, but the coach said I should be given a chance to learn the game since I was so keen.”
One of Manpreet’s first hockey wins earned him Rs 500 as prize money. This possibly saved his future career, because this was the first time he’d been away from home for so long, and his mother was both angry and worried. But one look at the prize, and no longer did his mother try and keep him from the game.
In fact, the family went further. In 2005, Manpreet began training at Surjit Hockey Academy in Jalandhar, one of the best institutes in India for the sport. Six years later, he made his international debut, and since then, he’s been a constant part of the national team.
Bring on the heroes
This, unfortunately, does not make Manpreet rich and famous. You don’t see him endorsing products, for example, or often on the cover of magazines. Because for all that hockey is India’s national game, cricket has proved more commercially viable.
But Manpreet doesn’t despair. “Hockey has changed a lot in the last few years,” he says. “Today, thanks to the Hockey India League, several players including me have a much better financial position and job security too. As far as endorsements are concerned, senior players like Sardar Singh have got several offers and are known names in the market. Even I have several offers, but due to my tight schedule, I am unable to take up anything right now.”
He has many hockey idols, including former German captain Moritz Fürste with whom he played in the Hockey India League. “He gave me a lot of tips about the game,” says Manpreet. “And Sardar Singh inspires me with his style of playing.” But as far as sports stars go, Manpreet is a huge fan of Christiano Ronaldo and David Beckham, and wears a number 7 jersey just like they do.
“Their success stories have been a big inspiration for me,” says Manpreet. “I have always seen them help others. I have read a lot of books about Ronaldo and even watched movies related to him. Ronaldo says that even when you are successful, you should never forget your humble beginnings. I totally go by that philosophy.”
He shares one of the most inspirational Ronaldo anecdotes he’s read: Growing up, Ronaldo told his father about a dream of living in a big house. But Ronaldo senior told him that was impossible. Today, Ronaldo does live in a big house, but since his father is no longer alive to share the house with him, Ronaldo uses his earnings to financially support poorer players.
“That’s what I want to do if I reach that level of success,” says Manpreet. “And like Ronaldo, even my father won’t be around to share my success.” Manpreet’s father passed away last year while Manpreet was at an international tournament. “When I heard the news, I was shocked because I’d spoken to him just the previous night, and he was hale and hearty.”
The team arranged to send Manpreet back home mid-tournament, but once the rituals were done, Manpreet’s mother sent him back. “My mother told me that my father always wanted me to give my best on the field, so I should go back and play well. And my teammates and even members of rival teams helped and supported me in those sad days.”
Love and other engagements
What saddens Manpreet most is that his father had wanted to dance the bhangra at his youngest son’s wedding. That dream will obviously remain unfulfilled, but at least he watched Manpreet get engaged last year to a girl who Manpreet found on a hockey field!
Manpreet’s fiancée, Illi Najwa Saddique – a Malaysian of Pakistani origin – has hockey in her blood (her mother used to play hockey) and is passionate about the game. After the Indian team won the Sultan of Johor Cup in 2013, she’d approached the team for a photo. “I totally believe in love at first sight,” Manpreet laughs.
Manpreet’s family loves Illi. “She is really down to earth, and when she is in Jalandhar, she never behaves like a guest,” says Manpreet. “My mother has named her Navpreet. And Illi is my best critic. She is totally honest with me. This doesn’t mean she puts me down. Instead, she motivates me.”
That motivation is just as important to Manpreet the captain as it is to Manpreet the sportsman. Leading the team requires a strong mind, the ability to handle situations, and the motivation of both individual players and the team. “But they are energetic and willing to listen to suggestions,” says Manpreet. “I try to motivate my team by talking to them and pepping them up. If someone hasn’t played well or is going through a bad patch, then I tell them to focus on the next move and not brood about what has happened. And I seek advice from seasoned players like Sardar Singh on strategies. I have also learnt a lot from PR Sreejesh.”
Before any game, Manpreet relaxes to build his focus. Meditation classes, Punjabi songs (Diljit Dosanjh and Honey Singh are among his favourites), and Playstation help him chill. He also hangs out with friends (mostly hockey players), watches movies (ideally sports-related ones like M S Dhoni – The Untold Story, Chak De! India and Bhaag Milkha Bhaag), loves tattoos, likes super bikes (R1, Hayabusa) and even super cars, and is active on Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter.
But, while Manpreet’s big dream is to win big for India, his biggest dream of all is to encourage youngsters to play a sport, any sport. “Parents should tell their kids to put their focus on any sport, kabaddi, hockey, wrestling, whatever, and we need more academies for that,” he says.
Having said that, Manpreet the young man rather than the socially conscious sportsman would be happy to emulate his non-sports hero Salman Khan. “If I were ever offered a film, I’d certainly try my luck,” says Manpreet.
If India understands there are sports other than cricket, perhaps Manpreet will be a hero some day.
Follow @VeenuSingh12 on Twitter
From HT Brunch, August 27, 2017
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