Just a few days over a month to go for the 2017 Asia Cup Hockey tournament and the Indian hockey team receives a huge blow. Head coach Roelant Oltmans is shown the boot by Hockey India. Guess what’s worse? They will even be without the services of talismanic skipper P.R Sreejesh, who is recuperating from a medial collateral ligament (MCL) injury.
Among all the disarray, the Indian team returned from Dhaka with the prestigious trophy after a long wait of 10 years. And no one’s happier than Manpreet Singh. The Indian hockey skipper Manpreet Singh might not be one name on everyone’s lips, but he’s already built a strong reputation for himself in modern day hockey.
On a cosy afternoon at the office, a shy Manpreet walks in post-lunch and casually adjusts himself on an ergonomic leather chair in the room. Before we even begin the interview, a lanky, young local player approaches Manpreet.
Manpreet and the youngster discuss hockey before a person seated nearby tells the boy, “He’s Manpreet Singh, the captain of the hockey team and he recently won the Asia Cup."
The boy casually nods in affirmation with a slight grin on his face before setting his eyes on a perfect background for a picture with the Indian hockey’s man of the moment. A few minutes later, a couple turn up for the same purpose.
Combed to the right, Manpreet’s hair is stylishly gelled. His beard game is right on point. His voice is a complete antithesis to the rugged bad boy look he carries on the field. He flaunts an ‘In Onkar’ tattoo just below his knuckles, that confirms his faith in God.
It wouldn’t take long to spot the desire and humility burning in those dark brown eyes. The same desire when he leads the Indian team on the field.
In a candid interview, the Jalandhar-based halfback, who is now a RedBull athlete speaks to us about Indian Hockey. Excerpts:
You recently guided the team with a victory in the Asia Cup, what are your goals for the future?
Before I retire, my aim is that I want to win the Olympics or the World Cup for my country.
Expectations are high heading into the FIH Hockey World League. How are you feeling the pressure?
I do not feel any sort of pressure because we are doing really good right now. First of all, we won the Asia Cup and the team is in good shape. When we won, so much love poured in for us. Big celebrities like Amitabh Bachchan and Sachin Tendulkar also sent their wishes and it was really a positive sign.
So now we are looking forward to the Hockey World League finals in Bhubhaneshwar. It is going to be a good tournament because the top teams will be coming here, as we will be playing the first match with Australia.
Any other sport or profession you were interested in before taking up hockey?
During childhood, if I wouldn’t be playing hockey, I would be engaged in farming or something of that sorts. Besides hockey, I like football. I admire Cristiano Ronaldo and David Beckham. They are my favourites. So if not a hockey player, I would have been a footballer.
Do you feel the sacking of Roelant Otlmans was a harsh decision by Hockey India?
As a player, we don’t focus too much on such things, because if we have our mind on such things it's not going to be good for us. Currently, Sjoerd Marijne is really good right now. He is friendly and we often share things with him. He’s a man with real positivity, who understands the team.
How different are Otlmans and Marijne in their philosophies?
Marijne and Oltmans both hail from one country (Netherlands) and they share the same thoughts. The only difference is their playing styles. Marijne tells us not to carry the ball too ahead because a single player cannot beat 10 guys alone. He tells the team to stick with the give-and-go style of hockey. Whenever you receive the pass, always pre-scan and give-and-go.
He (Marijne) believes that if you play as a team with a simple passing game, you can beat any side. Also, he is really positive with everyone. If anybody commits a mistake, he instructs me to motivate that individual as a captain and bring him back in the game. On the field, everyone is equal on the ground and anybody can commit mistakes.
You have a close relationship with former India captain PR Sreejesh, who is currently sidelined with an injury. How much have you learnt from him as a player?
I have a good relationship with him and other players as well. He is always the first one to motivate me whenever I have made mistakes on the ground. Off the field, we've had so much fun together, pulling others’ legs. There’s a still lot to learn from him and other experienced guys like Sardar Singh.
Tell us about the contribution of seniors such as SV Sunil, Sardar Singh to this young squad.
Both youngsters and seniors formed a good combination in Asia Cup. The juniors put in good energy and the seniors shared their experience with juniors. Sardar for example, took good responsibility, leading from the back with his passing game.
The squad has many young talented players. Who all have impressed you?
There are many of them. Suraj Karkera performed very well as a goalkeeper in Asia Cup. Drag-flicker Harmanpreet Singh, Varun Kumar, Dipsan Tirkey and Gurjant Singh, they all are doing really well. Gurjant scored a crucial goal against South Korea, when the team was losing and when we needed it badly. Harmanpreet emerged as the top scorer in Asia Cup, so all of them are special.
Can experienced players like Sardar still cement their place in the team given there is tight competition for places?
The youngsters are really talented; they have shown that by winning the World Cup. But the experience of seniors such as Sardar is really crucial for the team because they have been playing for a really long time. They have witnessed tough and the good times. They always teach youngsters how to react and motivate themselves whenever they are low on confidence, so they are really important.