'By changing the captain I believe Sardar will play a much better Olympic Games. Sardar took the decision (of him being removed from captaincy) very sportingly. He understands what's required from him.'
In a significant but surprise move, senior goalkeeper PR Sreejesh was named captain of India’s men’s hockey team for the Rio Olympics.
He replaced Sardar Singh at the helm. Playmaker SV Sunil, who was Sreejesh's deputy at the Champions Trophy, in which India registered its best finish in the tournament by winning a silver medal, was named his deputy.
While there are rumours that Sardar's axing is because of his dip in form in recent times, the team’s chief coach and High Performance Director Roelant Oltmans said the move was necessitated to relieve the ace midfielder from excess responsibilities.
"The philosophy behind changing the captain is that we felt people need to take more responsibilities on the pitch and off the pitch. Sardar was taking too much responsibilities because of which he was not performing at the level that is expected of him," Oltmans told reporters during a glittering function, organised by Hockey India, to announce the men's and women's squads for the Rio Games.
"By changing the captain I believe Sardar will play a much better Olympic Games. Sardar took the decision (of him being removed from captaincy) very sportingly. He understands what's required from him."
Asked if Sardar's off-field controversy (allegations of rape after promising marriage levelled against him by a British national) bogged him down, the Dutchman reacted in affirmative.
"Of course, those things did affect him.
"For me, it is important that we perform as a team. We tried this combination of players in the Champions Trophy and it worked for us. This is the time to fine-tune our processes and I have complete faith in our processes. I believe in this group of players," Oltmans said.
"I need shared leadership. I need players who take responsibility on and off the field and that's the reason I felt we need to change the captain. We changed the captain in the Champions Trophy and that's worked out really well.
"I believe at this moment this is the best solution for Sardar and the team. For me there is only one thing and that's the team and individuals are part of the team," he added.
The 16-member team has a mixture of youth and experience. It comprises seven players who played in the London Olympics and nine new faces.
The team has five defenders, six midfielders, four forwards and only one goalkeeper in Sreejesh.
Young drag-flicker Harmanpreet Singh, defender Surender Kumar and midfielder Devinder Walmiki were rewarded for their good showing in recent tournaments.
The only notable omission from the squad is that of ever-reliable defender Birendra Lakra, who failed to recover in time after knee surgery.
The team also has two standby players -- defender Pradeep Mor and goalkeeper Vikas Dahiya -- who will also travel to Rio after the Indian Olympic Association approves Hockey India's request.
"The team is a great mixture of experienced players and youngsters and I believe that's the best possible. Out of the 16 we have 7 players who have played at the London Olympics. They have Olympic experience and then we have nine new players," Oltmans said.
Although he refused to predict anything, he promised a much-better show from his wards at Rio.
"If you make it to the quarter-finals, which is our aim, then it’s all one day match. I can only say one thing: we will be 100 per cent prepared. I believe in this group. Their self-belief has increased by winning a couple of medals in."
Sardar, meanwhile, did not seem disappointed on being axed as the skipper.
"For me hockey and nation comes first. Our only target is to give our best in the Olympics and we have been preparing hard for this event for the last two years. For me everybody is a leader in the team.
"Our aim is to win a medal. It is time for us to be focussed and united.
"What is important is to play for the country. Hockey is a team game and captain has no role in this game. I would like to congratulate Sreejesh. It is time to be together and make the team more strong and give our best in the Olympics," he said.
Asked about the off-field controversy, Sardar said: "My focus right now is just on hockey. People are trying to distract me but my target is to give my best at the Olympics."
New skipper Sreejesh said unlike other captains he will lead the team from behind.
"My focus is on my performance because if it would a shame if you concede 10 goals after becoming the captain. I will also try to support every player.
"All leaders lead from the front but I will lead from behind."
He backed Sardar to return to his best form in the Olympics.
"When there is no pressure you can perform your best. As a team we will try to keep him (Sardar) from distraction. The good thing about Sardar is that he never takes his worries on to the field."