As Sardar Singh trudged out after the two-match Test series against Australia on November 30 in 2016, he was looking forward to an overdue holiday to recharge his batteries after a trying year.
As Indian hockey hit an upward curve, one of its best modern-day servants hit a downward curve. Even as he helped Punjab Warriors to a title at the Hockey India League, a former girlfriend brought forward allegations of sexual assault.
On the field, it looked like he was slowing down India’s play. There were debates on his merits inside Hockey India offices as the selection committee gathered to pick the squad for the Olympics. He made it into the 18 but not as captain.
While he was never out of the scheme of things, he needed that break. So he went to Germany and Netherlands to unwind. Even though he was out for a month, he was never far away from a gym. When he was in Europe, another unexpected thing happened. India won the Junior World Cup.
Suddenly, the head of the snake appeared to be weak. He too recognised that. His first comments to the media in 2017 included this. “This break was very good for me as it helped me relax my mind,” he said. “It has helped me introspect. My first aim is to make the probable list for the national camp in March.” That was Sardar speaking.
As late as 2015, he was the undisputed king of Indian hockey. That was one of the very few times he used the media to reveal what he was feeling. Conversations with him, even when he was captain, was restricted to ‘haanji, paaji’ (yes, elder brother).
His mind may have been rejuvenated but he was still trying to rediscover his old self throughout the 2017 HIL — there were only glimpses. But Barry Dancer, coach of Punjab, swatted away questions vis-a-vis his form. “The Indian media are always on the lookout for non-existent angles and narratives,” he had told Express.
“Sardar is a fine player and the conviction and the heart he shows on the field is exemplary.”
He made the core list — experience helping him get a place. There was also a willingness to learn and adapt. Having started out as a striker some 12 years ago, Roelant Oltmans again played him there during the World League Final in Raipur in December 2015.
If that was a willingness on the Dutch coach’s part to recalibrate his game, the 30-year-old has also been receptive to change. At the ongoing tournament here, he has already played in midfield, in the backline and also in a sort of withdrawn role just ahead of the defenders. He is almost like the ‘aloo’ of the team (ironically, Manpreet Singh, his replacement and the one who wears the captain’s armband with increasing frequency, is known by that nickname).
“He is of immense value to the team whether he plays back or in midfield,” Oltmans summed up his performance after the match against Great Britain. “He can play up front as well but at the end of the game he probably wanted to do a bit too much even.”
All great players modify their game as they grow older and Sardar seems to be doing it. GB coach Bobby Crutchley liked what he saw. “It was interesting to see him play there (backline). I was watching some of the footage. He has played a long time at centre-half and in the middle of the pitch. But he has got so much control when he plays at the back. It’s difficult to press him because of that. You also have to watch him because of his ability to pick a pass. He is always going to be a threat.”
That will be music to Sardar’s ears, who has changed his lifestyle so as to have a chance of playing at the 2018 World Cup and beyond.
Maybe that ‘Dear John Letter’ can wait.