The awe and respect Sardar Singh evokes in international hockey for being a class act as an aggressive midfielder and his commitment to team cause stands out in an Indian squad struggling to hold head above water. He is a living example of energy and enterprise, able to assert himself in physical and positional play that world hockey demands from specialists at the top.
His nomination for the FIH Player of the Year in 2012 is a strange situation. Team India’s last-place finish at the London Olympics and fourth position at the Champions Trophy in Melbourne underscores the collective inability to click as a unit. He stood out like the light at the end of the tunnel in both competitions. Sardar’s teammates had to only pick a leaf from his book at the London Olympics and fall in line with the tactical plan drawn up by the team management. Instead, chief coach Michael Nobbs seethed in frustration as the seniors in the squad did their own thing in a string of defeats.
Taking time to find its feet on the blue turf at Riverbank Arena, India lost five league games in a row and also the placings games. Ranked 10th in the world going into the Olympics, the team started with a spirited fight-back against The Netherlands, clawing back from two goals down to draw level, then losing 2-3.
Subsequent defeats in the league phase against Germany, South Korea, Belgium and New Zealand forced a strangely disjointed India to play for pride against South Africa, ending up 12th out of the 12 men’s qualifiers at the London Games. For a nation which missed qualification four years ago at Beijing, humiliation can be unnerving.
Only the second foreigner entrusted with an Olympic squad by India, Nobbs tried to evolve an effective style fusing speedy counter-attacks, instinctive passing favoured by Asians with Aussie-style pace and punch. Eventually, the players he banked on let him down.
India qualified for 2012 Olympics in style, burying aspirants like France under an avalanche of goals and free-wheeling style in New Delhi. Olympics hockey is a different level and harsh reality exposed India as a team of under-achievers at London 2012. Sardar stood out at the Riverbank Arena by pulling strings in the midfield, tireless defensive work and inspired passing. This display under pressure was rewarded with captaincy for the 2012 Champions Trophy.
Indian hockey went through another phase of transition post-London as Nobbs axed senior Olympians (captain Bharat Chetri, Sandeep Singh, Ignace Tirkey, Gurbaj Singh, Tushar Khandekar and Shivender Singh) for non-performance at the Games.
Youngsters from the developmental squad were drafted in and a new-look India, led by midfield maestro Sardar, advanced to the bronze medal tie against Pakistan playing the free-flowing style endorsed by Nobbs, losing the match and missing the podium finish.
The Australian chief coach would have benefited from a wider talent base to choose from. Infighting between Hockey India and Indian Hockey Federation meant doors were shut on players daring to compete in World Series Hockey. Established internationals and talented juniors remain excluded from the probables list for future events.
FIH latest ranking lists India at 11th. Indian hockey shot itself in the foot at the London Olympics. Seniors disregarded instructions of the chief coach and the nation paid a heavy price. Timely course correction can arrest the free fall, whether over-hyped players or administrators nursing inflated egos. The hole we find ourselves in is of our own making.