'The way we are playing now, if we continue to play the same hockey, no one can stop us from standing on the podium in Tokyo.'
India's hockey captain Manpreet Singh was named the International Hockey Federation's Player of the Year. The 27 year old beat Belgium's Arthur van Dorren and Argentina's Lucas Villa to and become the first Indian to win the prestigious accolade.
Manpreet, who made his debut in 2011, and now has 265 international appearances under his belt, learnt the basics of the game at the Surjit Singh Hockey Academy in Jalandhar.
Hailing from Mithapur village, which has produced greats like Swaroop Singh (the 1952 Helsinki Olympics gold medal winner) and former India captain Pargat Singh, the midfielder is the key driver in India's success over the last few years.
He captained India in the Asia Cup title win in 2017 and was also part of the 2014 Asian Games gold medal-winning team and 2014 Commonwealth Games silver medal-winning team and 2016 and 2018 Champions Trophy silver medal-winning teams.
Last year, he led the team in the Olympic hockey qualifiers from which India convincingly secured a Tokyo 2020 spot, drubbing Russia by a 11-3 aggregate over two legs.
He was also at the helm as Indian hockey kicked off the Olympic year with a dominant run in the FIH Pro League, beating The Netherlands and world No 1 Belgium.
He will now turn his focus to the Olympics, where India, eight-time goal medallists, will look for their first medal since 1980.
Rediff.com's Laxmi Negi speaks to the hockey wizard.
You decided to play hockey at age 9. How did you get the conviction and clarity of mind at such a young age?
My elder brothers used to play hockey. We had great hockey players like Swaroop Singh and Pargat Singh from our village in Mithapur, so there was a good hockey environment around me when I was growing up. When my brothers used to come home with trophies, I wanted to emulate them.
Right from childhood I hate to lose. I want to be a winner in everything that I do. Therefore, I realised that hockey would be best for me.
Since I was the youngest in the house my parents did not want me to pursue the sport. They thought I may get hurt or break my nose. They were being protective. But I was determined to play hockey.
Once my mother had to go out and she instructed my brother to not allow me to go for hockey training. My brother locked me in the house and left for his coaching.
I sneaked out and reached the academy. When he saw me he got very angry and started shouting at me. The coach asked him what the matter was and made my brother understand that since I was so keen on playing hockey, why don't they allow me.
From that day, my parents did not stop me, but I could sense that they were reluctant.
One day I had to go to a neighbouring village for a tournament. It was the first time I was away from home. It was 11 pm and my mother got worried. She went to the coach's house and started shouting at his wife.
When he returned, his wife asked him to accompany me since my mother was very angry. When I reached home, my mother didn't think twice before yelling at my coach.
I was very small, but I mustered courage to show her the 500 rupees that I got as a prize. I told her it is my first salary and I wanted to give it to her.
There were tears in her eyes and from that day I have had my family's full support.
There is one more incident from my childhood which I will never forget. We were not well to do financially and my mother was putting wood in the fireplace. She was searching for more wood and saw my stick and put it in the fireplace.
When the rubber near the grip started emitting a foul smell, I saw the damage being done. I instantly removed the stick. I played with that burnt stick for a few days as we didn't have enough money to buy a new one.
When I look back, it is these instances which keep me grounded and remind me why I started playing this sport and how passionate I am about it.
You are a two-time Olympian, an Arjuna Awardee and now FIH Player of the Year. What keeps you motivated?
I am a huge Cristiano Ronaldo fan. Whenever I watch him play, I see that he never gives up. He yearns to be the best always.
Just like him, I want to be the best hockey player in the world. I have this hunger to be the best and make my family proud of my achievements.
How we still call Balbir Singh senior a living legend, I want to be remembered like that.
I have a long way to go and that's what keeps me motivated.
In 2016 you lost your father while you were playing the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup in Malaysia, but you resumed soon to help your country reach the final. You have dedicated this award to your father. What has been his influence?
I am the youngest in my family and was closest to my father. When he passed away, my mother didn't inform me thinking it would affect me and my game while playing the Sultan Azlan Shah tournament.
One of my team-mates informed me and they arranged for my travel back home for his funeral. There used to be lot of relatives visiting. I was sitting with my mother and she made me understand that I must be sad, but I should go back and help my team win. She told me my father would have wanted it.
She told me to go back, play my best and make my father proud.
I remember when I was sitting in the changing room, I kept thinking about my father. There were thoughts that had he been alive he would have been cheering for me and watching this match. There was this empty feeling that he is no more.
My team-mates sensed my mood and they all rallied around me and told me that my father would be happy watching me play.
The way my team-mates and the opposing team supported me (The Australians wore black arm bands), I felt better.
Therefore, I dedicate the FIH Player of the Year 2019 honour to my late father.
How hopeful are you about India's performance at the Tokyo Olympics?
If you look at our year, we did well in every tournament that we participated in, like the FIH Pro League. Be it the FIH Men's Series Finals or the Test series in Belgium where we played the hosts as well as Spain and beat them.
The way we are playing now, if we continue to play the same hockey, no one can stop us from standing on the podium.
What are the team's strengths?
We play a very attacking game and it has helped us. Whenever we have reached the opposition 'D', we have either scored a goal or won a penalty corner. Our hard work is reflecting on the field.
Which are the areas that the team needs improvement?
We need to make our defence strong. It will be good for us. We also have very good drag flickers, so we need to use them well and try to convert the penalties.
Indian hockey has seen an upward trend recently. What is the secret?
It is the hard work of the players and coaching staff. Also, there are no stars in the team.
There are no seniors or juniors in the team. We all talk and joke with anyone and everyone.
Youngsters like Rajkumar Pal, who joined the team recently, also feel very much a part of the team. It is a very positive step for us as a team.
Why do you wear the No 7 jersey?
Because David Beckham and Ronaldo wear the No 7 jersey!
I was a junior and it was not easy to get No 7. I had to request my seniors a lot to get me the coveted number.
Other than hockey, is there any sport that you follow?
Football and tennis.
Your favourite sportsperson?
Cristiano Ronaldo and former Germany captain Moritz Fürste.
How do you unwind?
I listen to music. The kind of music depends on the mood. Just before the match I prefer Punjabi music, especially by Diljit Dosanjh.
When I am doing nothing I prefer soothing melodies from Arijit Singh and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
I likes playing FIFA on his playstation.
One thing we don't know about Manpreet Singh.
I am a big movie buff and my favourite film stars are Akshay Kumar and Salman Khan. After I am done with hockey, I would like to try my hand at acting in the movies.
When are you getting hitched? (Before I finish my question, he answers with a chuckle.)
(Manpreet's fiancée Illi Najwa Saddique is a Malaysian of Pakistani origin. She used to play hockey at the junior level and is passionate about the game. He met her while playing hockey in Malaysia in 2013 and it was love at first sight for him, he says.)
My fiancee is in India now and after the Tokyo Olympics we plan to get married.
If I come home with a medal, the joy will be doubled.