In between savouring Japanese delights, hockey veteran Jagbir Singh ruminates on the different phases the national sport has gone through

It was an invitation he could not decline. The International Hockey Federation President Leandro Negre offered an exotic lunch in Madrid and Jagbir Singh was quick to grab it. “Something very special,” whispered Negra, and Jagbir was game!

Negre refused to reveal the fascinating dish that rested on the table. Both dug into it and did it justice. Jagbir was “famished” and so was Negre. The dish dealt with appropriately, Jagbir could not control his anxiety to discover what “formed” his lunch. “Octopus” Negre said with a smile. Jagbir smiled too, even as his belly churned.

But the former hockey Olympian was at his inquisitive best when we met for lunch at Sakura, an authentic Japanese restaurant, in The Metropolitan Hotel. Jagbir loved tormenting the Japanese with his dexterity on the hockey field. He relished the food no less. “Hockey was the only sport in the family. My father (Darshan Singh) played hockey and organised the all-India Dhyan Chand tournament in Agra. Proximity to great players like Ashok Kumar, Ajitpal Singh, Mukhbain Singh, Surjit Singh ensured I discarded the cricket bat and picked a hockey stick,” recalled Jagbir.

We keep the menu aside and leave the job to Ashim Rastogi, the affable manager. He comes up with a welcome suggestion. “An assorted tray,” offers Rastogi and Jagbir jumps at the idea with a request, “No sea food please!” The Madrid experience is vivid.

There is yasai salad, finely shredded seasonal vegetables served with Japanese dressing, and sushi rolls to begin with. “When India won the 1975 hockey World Cup, I was hugely inspired. The Olympic gold in 1980 set me on the course to Sports Hostel, Lucknow,” Jagbir said. And there was no looking back.

Hockey was big when Jagbir, a ‘young’ 47 now, was growing up, but acquiring the equipment was a task. “I was promised a stick (by Virender Singh) but never given one. Then I requested MP Ganesh. He promised he would if his team won the final.” Ganesh played and Jagbir prayed. Even before the presentation ceremony was over, Ganesh, having won the match, had been relieved of the hockey stick. The hockey stick was a priceless possession for Jagbir. There was something else too. “Sitting next to Dadda (Dhyan Chand) and watching him twirl a hockey stick incessantly even as he followed the contest.”

The soft-spoken Jagbir now turns to edamame, lightly salted, blanched green soy bean pods and chicken teriyaki, grilled chicken basted with teriyaki sauce. “Delicious,” he murmurs, biting into yesai tempura, assorted vegetables dipped in light batter and deep fried.

There is tori karaage, deep fried boneless chicken cubes.

Jagbir, an ace forward adept in three different positions, participated in the 1988 and 1992 Olympics, has known changes in Indian hockey from close and distance. “It has been mixed, from dominance to depression, success (1975) to shame (Chile 2008).” In 2008, India failed to qualify for the Beijing Olympics, a new low. “It was like Brazil not making it to the World Cup in football.”

In 1988, India finished sixth and seventh four years later. “We were rated among the top but paid for negativity.”

He picks up a piece of yasai korokke, vegetable croquette with potato and corn, and looks into the future.

“We have the talent but need proper administration. Players have to be treated well. The infighting in the federation must stop. We have some world class players in Sardar Singh, SV Sunil, Shivendra Singh, Gurbaj Singh. They are all so gifted. As a selector, I had always pushed hard for players who would last. A coach should also be appointed for a long term.”

Zaru soba, cold wheat noodles, beckons him. A small helping of it and kurogoma (black sesame) ice cream completes the lovely lunch. Jagbir is impressed with the ambience too.

“Being an Olympian is not enough. Indian hockey needs winners. The national team has to do well to attract youngsters. I have faith in this team. A place among the top six would be a realistic expectation. With luck, the team can finish higher.”

We take leave with Jagbir promising a treat at Sakura if India makes it to the semi finals at the London Olympics.

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