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The men who hold the key to India's chances in hockey

Last updated on: July 23, 2012 09:18 IST

The men who hold the key to India's chances in hockey

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Laxmi Negi

The Indian hockey team returns to the Olympics after an eight-year hiatus. The London Games provides the eight-time gold medalists an opportunity to make up for the failure to qualify for the Beijing Olympics in 2008, the first time it did not take the field at the quadrennial extravaganza.

London is also where India won the fourth of its eight Olympic gold medals way back in 1948. However, the going is surely going to be tough for the country that won its last Olympic gold in 1980, at Moscow, and is no longer a force to reckon with in the sport.

For India to break their 32-year medal jinx at London much will depend on how some key members of the team perform. The side is young and fit but lacks experience. Ignace Tirkey and Sandeep Singh are the only players who have played in an Olympics. The rest of the squad will be making their debut.

While skipper Bharat Chetri will man the goal, in defence, there is Sandeep and V R Ragunath. Both are fine exponents of the drag-flick, which is vital for goals from penalty-corners, but they are susceptible in tackling.

The forward line will be spearheaded by Shivendra Singh, Tushar Khandekar and SV Sunil, while playmaker and vice-captain Sardara Singh, the only Indian in the FIH's World XI for the last two years, holds the key in midfield. Much will depend on how he dictates the trend of play.

The team hasn't fared too well in warm-up matches in the run-up to the Games and to finish among the top teams, India, which is drawn in Group B along with reigning Olympic champions Germany, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Korea and Belgium, will have to conjure up something out of the ordinary.

For that to happen much will depend on how the aforementioned players perform. They hold the key to India's progress at the Games.

Sandeep Singh: (defender/drag-flicker)

The name should be survivor Singh rather than Sandeep Singh.

Life has come a full circle for the drag-flick ace after he sustained a freak injury in 2006 in a train, when an RPF officer's pistol accidentally went off and he was shot in his foot. He was on his way to Delhi to join the team for the World Cup in Germany.

Again, in 2011, it looked as if it would be curtains for Sandeep and Sardar Singh as they rubbed the federation on the wrong side. They were banned for two years but timely sense prevailed after they apologised.

India's former skipper is ranked among the world's best drag-flickers.

Before going into the Olympic qualifiers in New Delhi, he predicted that he would score at least 12 goals. He ended up scoring 16!

Going into the Olympics, Sandeep had said he has no numbers in mind, but after playing a few matches on the tour of Europe perhaps he will make a prediction.


Image: Sandeep Singh
Photographs: Laxmi Negi

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'Whatever we are doing now is the reflection of the rigorous training'

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Sandeep says the Olympics-bound team is ready to take on the world.

"It is very important to set yourself goals, and work on them. It lifts your spirits and helps you focus. I had set myself a target of 12 goals at the qualifiers in Delhi and when I scored more than I thought I could score more at the Games. I told myself we are ready to take on the world," he said.

Sandeep, who made his international debut in 2004 at the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup, added: "I am sure that whatever chances we get, I will go for 70 per cent conversion rate and then fix my target."

But for those who do not know, Sandeep enjoys 90 per cent conversation rate in penalty-corners.

The Punjab player, who sports a tattoo of the Olympic rings on his forearm, says, "It reminds me of my dream. I played at the 2004 Games, and when we failed in 2008 there was no bigger frustration for any of us. It's been a long wait, and this time the difference is our confidence.

"Whatever we are doing now is the reflection of the rigorous training we have been undergoing for the last six months."


Image: Sandeep Singh
Photographs: Laxmi Negi
Tags: Sandeep , Delhi , Punjab

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'In the last six months we have hit top form'

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Sardar Singh (midfielder):

Sardar Singh is the livewire of the Indian team.

His job is to provide for the forwards and assist in defence. Ask this mercurial centre-half about the pressure that comes with his role, his reply is cool. 

"The expectations do not make me nervous. In fact, I am all the more confident now."

The 25-year-old, who regularly collects 'player-of-the-tournament' awards, finds his name in an FIH all-stars team.

For India to succeed at the Games a lot will depend on Sardar's form.

Sardar blazes: "We have done well and haven't stopped at that. The qualifiers were the first step.

"Olympics is the biggest event; there will be the best teams there and all will be ready. We will also be watching the best teams and be ready for them."

Quiz him about the targets the team has set at the Olympics and he replies, "We have not fixed a target but we will be taking things on a match-to-match basis. In the last six months we have hit top form."


Image: Sardar Singh
Photographs: Laxmi Negi

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'My performance has only improved'

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SV Sunil: (Forward)

SV Sunil's claim to fame can easily be his gesture of throwing a punch in the air with his middle finger raised against Pakistan in the 2012 Azlan Shah Cup.

But Indian fans will always remember him for the electrifying goal he scored in the dying minutes of the same game to give India a cherished 2-1 victory.

Sunil defended his actions saying, "It is not the ideal way to be remembered. It is definitely not a characteristic of a good player. I have already apologized for it and vowed that it will never happen in future."

But he exudes confidence. "My performance has only improved. I have been with the national fold for five years now and have the ability to overcome the nervousness of playing in the Olympics."

The 24-year-old was out of action due to a knee injury in 2010 and missed the crucial World Cup and Commonwealth Games. But came 2012 and Sunil found himself in the good books of the Indian team's Australian coach, Michael Nobbs.


Image: SV Sunil
Photographs: Laxmi Negi

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'I have worked upon a new style to celebrate goal'

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So how did he make it back to the team?

"Shivendra Singh and Gurbaj Singh have played an important role in my performance. We work in tandem and they always guide me. Of late we have been working on finishing and have improved and worked on various positions."

He adds, "We have done our best, but before we go to London we will play a few matches and a lot can happen in those matches. We hope to work on our mistakes. We cannot afford to make mistakes once the Olympics starts."

Playing in the Olympics, says Sunil, will be a dream come true, not only for him, but also his entire Acharya community in Coorg.

The lanky forward says capitalising on half-chances will be vital for the team's progress.

"In a match we will get 2-3 chances and need to convert those in order to win. I have set a goal for me -- that I need to score at least once in a match."

That, maybe, is because he wants to show off his new style of celebration.

"I have worked upon a new style to celebrate a goal. I am looking forward to score a goal at the Olympics so that I can celebrate in a new fashion."


Image: SV Sunil
Photographs: Laxmi Negi

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'There were times when we were not taken seriously'

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Shivendra Singh: (Forward)

The calm and composed Shivendra Singh is the most experienced forward in the team.

The 29-year-old has lived in the shadow of top players and teams for years. 

"There were times when we were not taken seriously by the top teams. When they were pitted against India, they used to think that they could easily pocket the three winner's points," he says, adding India's present set of players will not surrender easily.

"Things have changed now and the top teams fear us now," he declares.

The Air India player rates the team very high on fitness.

"When it comes to fitness, I think, we are better than the foreign teams. We are more athletic and have good speed."

After months of preparation he is anxious to take the field in London. 

"We all are fit and motivated to give our best," he says.


Image: Shivendra Singh
Photographs: Laxmi Negi

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'I am better prepared this time around'

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Gurvinder Singh Chandi: (Forward)

Gurvinder Singh Chandi is a talented forward, with an added ability to fall back and tackle.

The 23-year-old is one of the quickest and strongest Indian forwards, says team physio David John.

All was, however, not well for Chandi who made his senior debut in the Australia in the four-nations tournament in 2008.

After suffering an injury in the tournament in London in May, he was dropped from the squad for the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup and made it to the Olympics squad only after displacing the young Yuvraj Walmiki.

Though he did not figure in the Azlan Shah tournament he stayed put in Balewadi, near Pune, continued training and worked on regaining fitness.

Now, back in the frame, he has no qualms about returning to London and playing on the same turf that was responsible for his injury.

"The blue turf is heavy and bumpy, but since I have already played on it I am better prepared this time around," he says.


Image: Gurvinder Singh Chandi
Photographs: Laxmi Negi

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