From being the newest kid on the block in 2011 to becoming an indispensable part of the national hockey team, Manpreet Singh has come a long way in a short time

In his three years with the Indian hockey team, Manpreet Singh has undergone a transformation from being the naughtiest teenager to becoming one of the most intelligent, mature and responsible players in the side. It reflects in his looks too — the tattoos are hidden carefully, torn jeans and long hair are out, replaced by a formal shirt slung stylishly over branded jeans, carefully set hair and a pair of spectacles adding seriousness to his persona.

As a player, the biggest change came after his team, Ranchi Rhinos, won the inaugural Hockey India League earlier this year. That win put him in the limelight as a thinking player and made the kid from Jalandhar, a star in Ranchi. “Playing with my idol, German captain Moritz Fuerste, in HIL was a learning experience. That one month helped me grow several years as a player,” says the 21-year-old in a recent interview in New Delhi.

Starting at age 12, Manpreet’s leadership skills were tested for the first time when he was named skipper for the 2008 junior Asia Cup in Myanmar, which was also his international debut. He made his senior debut in the Asian Champions Trophy in 2011 and, a year later, made it to the Olympics squad. Since then, he has proved to be a natural leader, shouldering the responsibilities in the crucial position of a centre-half with ease and captaining the team in the absence of senior players.

“I am still learning. At the Sultan of Johor Cup recently (which India won), I had quite a few altercations with both the umpires and opposition players. I need to control my excitement and anger. I have tried to emulate Fuerste, who never got upset during the HIL. Or Sardar Singh, whom you never see fighting on the field,” he says.

The last one month has seen Manpreet make headlines again, this time off the field as well. After leading India to victory over hosts Malaysia in the final of the Sultan of Johor Cup, his relationship with Illi Najwa Saddique came out in the open, providing gossip for tabloids both in Malaysia and India.

“It is nothing. It was love at first sight, both our families know of it and are happy and we are confident of our relationship despite the distance. What’s so special? Don’t people fall in love all the time,” he asks.

Such interest in personal details are commonplace in Indian sports when it comes to cricketers, but rare for hockey players. Does he feel that he may just be on the cusp of bringing about a change in perception about hockey, that he may be the star the sport needs?

“I am not a star,” he declares, then adds with a laugh,” I don’t mind if I become one, though. See, I play my game hard but fair, I know my duties in the team and fulfil them and I learn something new every day. Anyone would like to be famous and be recognised by the public. But that will never be my priority,” he asserts.

What next? “Rio (Olympics). That’s the next target. London was a disaster and once is enough. There is a lot to do.

Hockey has given me everything, time for me to contribute to it now. Till then, marriage can wait,” he signs off.