With less than 50 days to go for the Rio Olympics, the Indian hockey team led by Sardar Singh is being closely watched. India’s performance at the Games, to be held from August 5 to 21, will depend on Sardar’s wizardry with the stick and his leadership on and off the field. Under his captaincy, India won the Asian Games gold medal in 2014 after a gap of 16 years and clinched the bronze at the World League last year.
MIHIR VASAVDA: The Indian hockey team hasn’t performed very well in the previous two Olympics. How is the confidence level of the team now, before the Rio Olympics?
During both Beijing (2008) and London Olympics (2012), I was a part of the Indian team. We didn’t qualify for Beijing. The team was well prepared, but it was the first time that the Indian team did not qualify for the Olympics. The players were prepared for London Olympics too but we didn’t meet our expectations. When you lose two consecutive Olympics, the team loses its confidence. During such times, I think the team needs a leader, not just one or two, but everyone, to keep up the motivation… Senior players need to step forward. In such times, players should refrain from talking ill about each other because then the team’s situation just gets worse. The best thing about the team now is, be it on the field or off it, that the environment is very good. This has been the case for the past 3-4 years.
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MIHIR VASAVDA: You said that players should not talk ill about each other. Do you think that was the biggest problem during the 2012 Olympics, that the team wasn’t united?
I was the vice-captain back then. I keep busy, I don’t know how to do politics. I have not said anything about any player. After every tournament, Hockey India asks us to evaluate the players and coaches… I got to know about the situation only then, it was bad. It shouldn’t have happened.
DAKSH PANWAR: The Indian cricket team is looking for a coach who can speak Hindi or an Indian language. Hockey still sticks to foreign coaches. Given that a lot of players in the team are from rural backgrounds, how do they interact with these coaches?
Speaking of foreign coaches… We do face problems, there is a language gap. They (coaches) need to understand our culture as well as the players’ minds. We are lucky that we have Roelant Oltmans (Indian men’s hockey coach), because he has also coached Pakistan. India and Pakistan have the same culture. He has been around for the last four-five years and the decision that Hockey India took before the Olympics regarding Oltmans was really good. If they had brought in any other coach, it would have taken one or two years for the players to understand him.
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There is a language problem too. During our team meetings, some players do not understand what the coach is saying. We have two-three meetings in a week. First, the coach gives us directions and then someone such as Tushar Khandekar (Indian hockey team manager) translates it for the players.
MIHIR VASAVDA: But that must be tough during matches with just a two-minute break. What if the coach wants to change the game strategy? Translating it to Hindi must be tough in such a short time.
Absolutely. In two minutes, you have to listen to what the coach is saying, understand it and take a decision. Sometimes, junior players such as Mandeep Singh, or even me, we are not able to understand certain words that the coach is using. It has happened a couple of times. But I tell the younger players that if they don’t understand something, they must talk to the seniors. Communication is important.
SANDEEP DWIVEDI: The Indian hockey team always had the skills, but what’s different this time is there is a lot of focus on the fitness of players. When did the team realise the importance of fitness?
If you are skillful, but not fit, then you can’t show your skills on the field. Our coach Oltmans, and before him David John (physio) and Michael Nobbs (former coach), they all focused on fitness. During our classes there is a lot of talk about the importance of being fit. In a 60-minute game, you cannot show your skills unless you are fit by modern hockey standards. Training is very important. We have a lot of running and weight training sessions with our coaches and trainers.
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SANDEEP DWIVEDI: Our team is one of the fittest in the world now. What kind of discipline does that require?
After winning the Asian Games (2014), we came up with a framework. All the players gave their views on what needs to be done to strengthen the team. It included everything — cellphone/internet usage, the kind of food we eat, recovery time after training etc. We have two-three WhatsApp groups, and when we wake up every day, we write on the these groups about our sleep hours, water intake, supplement intake etc. When it comes to junk food, say, if there is ice-cream on the table and a player is tempted to eat it, then the other players around him tell him not to do so. If even one player in a team of 16 is not following the schedule, then it spells trouble for the entire team. The boys know that the team is doing really well and we are very close to being one of the best in the world.
NIHAL KOSHIE: There is a lot of talk about the problem of drug addiction in Punjab now. Udta Punjab, a film on the subject, had a run-in with the Censor Board. You are a role model for many. What, according to you, is fueling the drug problem in Punjab and how can it be stopped?
I also think that if it wasn’t for hockey, maybe, I could have fallen for it (drugs) too. When you talk about drugs, I think sports can be a great intervention. As children, we would go to the ground in the morning and come back exhausted. We just went to sleep then. We didn’t have the time to think about anything else. So definitely, more avenues for sports should be introduced in the state. In Punjab, we get to hear about it (drug problem) a lot. I think the government is doing some good work. The youth should stay away from all these things.
SANDEEP DWIVEDI: Do you see a link between the rise of drug addiction and decline of hockey in the state?
I have heard about these things but never seen them. I had heard that there are some people, including small children, who have started using drugs. This was two-three years ago… But I have just heard these things, never seen them myself. But it’s wrong (addiction) and it has been happening a lot in villages. So this could be a reason (for the decline in hockey)…
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NIHAL KOSHIE: Even before Udta Punjab, films have depicted the subject of drug addiction on screen. Do you think filmmakers should be allowed to show the reality of a place without any cuts, especially in this case, because drug addiction is a genuine issue in Punjab?
I can only talk about hockey. Whatever the Censor Board has decided, they know more than us, what scenes to show and what not to show.
AMITAV RANJAN: There was talk about removing the word ‘Punjab’ from the film’s title…
If the film is based on reality it should be shown to the people. If the film can teach a lesson to our youth, what can be better than that?
MIHIR VASAVDA: What is your assessment of Asian hockey? Both Pakistan and Korea have slipped. India and Malaysia seem to be the only competitors.
After playing matches in the Hockey India League (since 2013), the performance of our players has improved a lot. The league matches should continue. Earlier, we didn’t get an opportunity to play with teams such as Australia, Germany, Netherlands… We read about players such as Jamie Dwyer (Australia) in newspapers. When we read about their game, a kind of fear sets in because these men have played top-level matches. But because of the league matches, these players now come and play with us. We get to observe them off the field — their diet, fitness regime — and our players have learned a lot from that.
In countries such as Pakistan and Korea, there are financial problems. If you look at Korea, they haven’t played a tournament for a long time. I think their federations should get as many sponsors as possible on board, build more academies, only then will things improve.
DAKSH PANWAR: You have played matches in Europe. Why are their players so good on the field?
The most important thing is facilities. Besides, the weather and diet of the players also count. Also, if Holland and Belgium need to play a match, the players can arrive at the venue in an hour’s time , because the facilities are so good. If we are to set up a camp in Delhi, players have to come from Odisha and other places. It’s difficult. European countries also play a lot of matches among themselves. That makes a difference. For us, even if we have to come together for one day, it takes a lot of time. Australia and New Zealand also play a lot of matches together.
SANDEEP DWIVEDI: Do you also pick up skills by watching football — defence, positioning etc.?
I have seen a lot of (Diego) Maradona and (Lionel) Messi matches. I watch their videos and observe how they pass a ball, dodge other players, score etc. I watch it before a match, I have some of their videos on my iPad. It gives me confidence.
DAKSH PANWAR: You belong to the Namdhari sect. It is among the few sects in India that puts a lot of emphasis on hockey.
Our guruji was a hockey player. I started playing hockey in Class VI. I saw my brother playing the game and started going to the ground. We used to have classes on one part of the campus and from there, we could see all these boys playing hockey. There was an incentive to play the game too… we would go to the ground in the evening and would get a glass of milk, a banana and an apple. A lot of international players come from my village in Sirsa.
Everyday, 120 boys come to the ground to play hockey. Now girls have also started playing the game. The Namdhari sect has its own school in the village, hockey sticks are provided there, there are other facilities too. He (guru) has also established an institution in Ludhiana, he has put up an astro turf there.
I was at the Namdhari academy in Sirsa for eight years and did my schooling there. I was selected to play the game from among 20 boys. I have played domestic tournaments on their (the sect) behalf.
DAKSH PANWAR: There is a lot of focus on league matches now. But what about national championships? Why is there no emphasis on them now?
Ever since Hockey India has come into the picture (2009), there has been a lot of change in the game. Most of our talent comes from there. Earlier, our camps were set up two months before the junior World Cup began, but now that has changed. We are getting the equipment we need, all the work is executed through proper channels. Now a camp has been put up for sub-junior girls too.
MIHIR VASAVDA: Now hockey has become financially rewarding too, unlike in the past when the players had no money.
The game has given a lot to the players. The fact that we get jobs is unique to India. It happened in Pakistan earlier. Nowhere in the world do players get permanent jobs.
But now that there is money in the sport, there is more pressure to be fit. Because if you are not fit, then you won’t be able to play the league matches, your contract could get canceled. So there is more passion now.
MIHIR VASAVDA: Europeans are known to dominate the game. We have heard stories of how, on the field, referees give decisions in their favour; off the field, rules are made to suit them. Have you experienced any of it?
Players from Australia and European countries have very sharp minds. They are all educated, some of them are doctors and lawyers. In case of a third referral, all 11 players appeal together. That affects the umpire’s decision. So, reaction of all players on the ground is important. The fact that you are at the number one position in the world may also affect the umpire’s decision. They (European players) are sharper because they have worked on the details. To become number one, we must observe their reactions and prepare ourselves the same way.
SANDEEP DWIVEDI: Do you feel the pressure to perform in the Olympics? Realistically, where do you think India will finish in the coming Olympics?
Since we have been performing well recently, there is pressure to perform in the Olympics too. People expect you to do well, the money is coming. For any athlete going for the Olympics, the target is to win a medal. We want the same thing, but there is a process behind it, and we are working towards it. So we can hope for good results this time. The Olympics are tough, but if we play together, then it is easy.
VINAY SIWACH: What are your plans after the Olympics?
The first target is to do well in the Olympics. Then the preparations for the World Cup, Asian Games etc. will begin. It has been hectic personally. The last time I got a break, I went to Holland to play in the league there. Then there are the league matches and you need to be fit. If you stop training for even two-three days, you lag behind. I will also spend some time with my family… they are getting old.
SHAILAJA BAJPAI: What is it about the Australians that we can’t defeat them?
They are very strong mentally. They have been continuously winning matches over the last few years and that has increased their self-confidence. We have played a lot of matches with them in the last few years and the results are getting closer. Playing more matches with them will also help us know their weaknesses. We are working on things, hopefully we will do well in the Olympics.