CHENNAI : Just before the 2018 edition of the Sultan Azlan Shah, reports started doing the rounds that Sardar Singh would announce his retirement after it. Obituaries were already penned as the management saw no place for him in the side. Sardar himself had believed those reports and had even cleaned out his room before a change of guard at the top offered him a new lease of life. In an extensive interview with Express, he talks about that phase, how he dealt with it and the targets for the season. Excerpts...
On pressure to retire
There has been performance pressure on me for some time now. When I wasn’t picked for a few series, I thought I was rested and would be picked for important ones like World League Final and Asia Cup. Even when I didn’t play in those tournaments, I still continued training like I usually do in the camp. But when I wasn’t in the squad for Commonwealth Games, I decided to return home. I had packed my stuff and left, thinking it was over for me. I just thought to myself if I didn’t get opportunities here, I will play in foreign leagues (he had got offers from clubs in both Belgium and Spain).
On the last three-four months
I started introspecting when people said I had slowed down. I made my mind a little stronger and convinced myself I can play more. I was lucky and would like to thank selectors for showing faith in me again. When Harendra Singh came in, he showed a different type of confidence in me. Before the Champions Trophy, I sharpened my skills and I resorted to use my experience by playing basic and simple hockey. I played whatever role I was given.
On whether he has thought about retirement yet
I draw my inspiration from Holland’s Teun de Nooijer and Australia’s Jamie Dwyer. They have kept themselves fit and played in their late 30s. I will play till the day I think I can give my best. If you are performing well, no one should have a problem. The day your fitness falls or you become a liability to the team, you should call it a day. I’m clearing my Yo-Yo tests, it means I’m fit to play now. If I have become slow, as people claim, how am I clearing my Yo-Yo tests?
On target for rest of the season
Asian Games is one of the most important targets. A victory in Jakarta will help us qualify directly for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. This will help boost self-confidence of the team for the World Cup at the end of this year. So effectively Asian Games is the most important tournament for us.
On how has his role changed over a decade with the team
When I started playing for India, we were ranked 12-13 and today we are ranked 5th. So the ranking shows how we have improved. I have worked under a number of coaches and each one of them brought something new to the team and adopted a different strategy. They all had different demands and different structure. In 2009-10, I played as a freeman, after that centre-half. I also played forward in 2015. Everyone made me play in different positions and I supplied whatever was demanded.
On how the current team has developed
We have a great structure. Till five years ago, we did not have any structure. And in those days we were playing 70 minutes. I must have played around 115 matches continuously for 70 minutes. Hockey has become very fast today, gone are the days when 3-4 good players could win you games. For the last few years, we have had a balanced side. That’s why you see the rankings improving and good results coming in.