CHENNAI : Mujhe midlfield mein khelna hai (I would like to play in midfield).”
As soon as Sardar Singh, then a young player hoping to make it to the national team, uttered those five words to V Baskaran, the World Cup winner realised that the country had a potential gem in its ranks.
The year was 2006 and the then 19-year-old was at the national camp for the first time when Baskaran took him aside after seeing his skills during training. “I think the first sentence he ever spoke to me was that request to play him in the midfield,” the 68-year-old told Express. “I instantly started liking him after he said that. Because that was a time when not many players liked having the ball. In fact, a few of the senior players were scared of the ball. But not this guy. He was still a kid, but his vision and passing range were outstanding. That was the thing that stood out for me.”
After 367 matches, more than 13,000 minutes, 19 international goals and an Asian Games gold in 2014, the 32-year-old decided to step down with immediate effect (he will formally convey his decision during a press conference in New Delhi on Friday).
Sardar’s step is a consequence of him being left out of the 25-strong list of probables for the upcoming Asian Champions Trophy. A majority of those players will be retained for the World Cup in November.
“I have decided to retire,” he said. “I have played enough hockey. Twelve years is a long time. It’s time for the future generation to take over. I took the decision after consultation with my family in Chandigarh, Hockey India and my friends. I think it’s the right time to think about life beyond hockey.”
It’s the last sentence that immediately catches one’s eye, because Sardar had a burning desire to continue playing for the national team. He had said so himself during the Asian Games in Jakarta. It’s pretty obvious to infer that he has been made a scapegoat for the team’s performances at the continental event.
While that’s a story for another day, the Haryana star leaves the stage as one of the fiestiest fighters whom Indian sport has seen. Even when Hockey India (HI) made him captain for Sultan Azlan Shah Cup earlier this year — a sort of golden handshake — the midfielder refused to accept his fate. He worked harder than ever before to come back into the reckoning. “I started introspecting when people said that I had slowed down,” he had told this newspaper back in July. “I made my mind a little bit stronger and convinced myself that I can keep playing more.”
Making promises is one thing, but acting on those is a completely different thing. Sardar hit the gym and looked abroad to see how world-class athletes maintain their bodies. In fact, he bettered his best yo-yo score weeks after the management dropped him from the Commonwealth Games squad. That was the way he responded to jibes of “slowpoke Sardar”. He travelled faster. That’s something he has always done throughout his career. One step ahead of teammates, who struggled to live with one of the few greats of the game in 21st-century India.
While HI is yet to say anything on the matter — sources have indicated that Sardar hasn’t kept them in the loop — their press release on the next batch of probables spoke volumes. “(...) the squad will be looking to regroup with fresh perspective in the lead up to the World Cup.” Fresh perspective. In 2006, Sardar was fast-tracked to provide it. In 2018, he has been left out for the firstname.lastname@example.org
Nobody from Odisha in camp
Odisha has nurtured some of India’s more renowned players but the latest set of core probables has zero representation from the state, whose capital city Bhubaneswar will host the 2018 World Cup from November. The likes of Biren Lakra and Amit Rohidas participated at the Asiad but both of them do not find a mention. The latter has been dropped while the former will undergo rehabilitation after sustaining an injury. Lakra, who is no stranger to injuries, could still make it to the WC squad but time is not his friend at the moment.
Goalkeepers: PR Sreejesh, Suraj Karkera, Krishan Pathak. Defenders: Harmanpreet Singh, Rupinderpal Singh, Gurinder Singh, Varun Kumar, Kothajit Singh, Surender Kumar, Jarmanpreet Singh, Pardeep Singh. Midfielders: Manpreet Singh, Chinglensana Singh, Sumit, Simranjit Singh, Nilankanta Sharma, Hardik Singh, Lalit Kumar Upadhyay, Vivek Sagar Prasad. Forwards: SV Sunil, Akashdeep Singh, Gurjant Singh, Mandeep Singh, Dilpreet Singh, Sumit Kumar.