A day after they booked a berth in the London Olympics, members of the Indian hockey team got a fitting media attention.

Two special members of the Olympic qualifier winning side garnered the maximum limelight. One was the chief architect of the victory, coach Michael Nobbs, and the other was the top scorer and the player of the final, Sandeep Singh.

The strong professional bond between the two was laid on a foundation of faith reposed by Nobbs in Sandeep. “He is a world class drag-flicker,” Nobbs would vouch openly, time and again.

The drag-flicker found inspiration in those reassuring words and rose beyond expectation to shoot 16 goals, including 15 through drag-flicks — the craft which marked him as one of the best in the trade.

“I owe my success to all my teammates. It is the result of the team work. Had there been no moves, there would not have been any penalty corners. Then, how would I have scored the goals!” said Sandeep, who celebrated his 26th birthday on Monday.

Sandeep, in his eight-year-old international career, has seen many dramatic ups and downs.

Be it the accidental bullet injury when travelling in a train or the disciplinary actions against him when he walked out of a national camp, he was tenacious enough to bounce back from all adversities and contribute handsomely.

He faced one such challenge in the qualifier itself. That was to improve his defence by several notches since the backline was the weak link of the fast-attacking Indian side.

Fine-tuned by veteran defender Dilip Tirkey, Sandeep enhanced his skills to provide support to the goalkeeper.

“Sandeep's footwork has improved and he is becoming more mobile,” Nobbs had noted just two days before the start of the event. No wonder, the coach utilised him on the field more in the final than the preceding matches.

Improved defence

With the progress of the tournament, the Shahabad player grew in confidence to spend more time in manning the Indian defence.

“His defence has improved for sure,” said assistant coach Clarence Lobo, who had been grooming the player from his younger days. “Sandeep is one of the rare defenders who can snatch the ball from the striker and advance to rival half,” added Lobo.

Dilip Tirkey endorsed. “The Indian defence has become slightly better. I was happy to see both Sandeep and (V.R.) Raghunath showing improvement in their footwork, tackling and follow-up,” said Tirkey.

Thanks Tirkey

Sandeep himself was delighted with his effort. “You must have seen how I performed. My stint with Tirkey really helped me,” he acknowledged.

About the challenges ahead in the Olympics, where his skills as a penalty corner expert as well as defender would be tested against some top teams in the world, Sandeep said, “I have to be sharper in both the areas. I have to add more variations and accuracy to my flicks.”

The man with 136 goals from 168 international matches has thrived all these years by mastering his flicks. And, he knows, the learning process is never-ending.

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