It all started calmly in India’s defence. It was a free hit. The clock read 5:35 left in the second quarter.

Varun Kumar took the free hit. He sent the ball to his left, over to Harmanpreet Singh waiting on the flanks. He looked up to see Gurjant Singh ahead of him and pinged a fast pass towards him. The No 9 received it with his back to goal and played it short to Vivek Sagar Prasad. Gurjant immediately started running forward and in a few yards was able to receive the return pass from the midfielder.

There was a channel opening inside the circle, and Gurjant then passed it quickly to Lalit Upadhyay who made a clever run inside. He wasted no time in finding Gurjant once again, who by now had gotten to the byline. All this while, young striker Abhishek was lurking a few yards away from goal, not staying static. When Gurjant put the ball into a dangerous area after these beautiful set of passes, all he had to do was guide the ball in.

Simple finish, but the goal was anything but. “That is team India at their very best,” the commentator exclaimed. Indeed so. In 14 seconds, from defence to attack, into the back of the net.

And in that goal scored against Belgium at Sportcentrum Wilrijkse Plein, Antwerp (even if the match eventually ended in a close defeat), India showcased everything that is good about the team. Sharp passing, superb fitness, great tactical awareness... and just overall, brilliant stick work. Those two matches against the Tokyo gold medallists were of such mouthwatering quality that left broadcasters and hockey fans reaching for superlatives.

“Oh that felt really, really good paaji,” said Manpreet Singh in an interaction with, his face lighting up with pride when the goal was mentioned.

“At that time we didn’t understand fully how good it was but when we came back and rewatched it on video with an aerial angle of the goal…. tak, tak, tak… the passing was superb. Really good angles. That goal was all about understanding and the give-and-go that we practice. Jab itna training karte hain aur uska result field mein milta hai, tab kushi aur zyada hi milti hai paaji (When we train so hard and we see the result on the field, the feeling is great)!”

It was one of the highlights of a solid FIH Pro League campaign where Indian men got to play a lot of high-intensity games against some of the best teams in the world, building on the highs of Tokyo. Sure, there were a couple of blips along the way, but largely the India men – who finished third behind Netherlands and Belgium – showed they are headed in a good direction. Manpreet, who took a captaincy break with Amit Rohidas taking over leadership duties in the back-end, said that the campaign provided ideas to improve India’s collective game as they head to Commonwealth Games.

India's sublime goal happens around the 45-second mark in this video

It all starts from the training ground

Manpreet, India’s midfield mainstay, had one of the best seats in the house when that goal went in. It’s the sort of field goal that any team would dream of, and to do it against a global powerhouse like Belgium meant a lot.

“Just to get the goal right, a lot of work that goes on in training. I can’t tell you the details of how we train to execute such a goal but it takes many hours to get it right. All the sweat and hard work that goes into training and when it comes out like that it feels really good,” the 30-year-old said.

India used to have the reputation of a side that was perhaps too skills driven, individual flair over team. One of the phrases coach Graham Reid used in a match a couple of years ago was to tell his team to stop being too “Bollywood”. It was a way to tell his team to play simple hockey, which is easier said than done.

And that goal against Belgium was precisely that. Simple things pieced together beautifully.

“Seriously, it’s taken four-five years to get to this point,” Manpreet said. “Definitely everyone knows that Indian players have always been good with stick skills. But now along with those skills, we have worked on adding more qualities like dodging, passing, then dodging again. It’s all about give-and-go… when someone passes it to me, they have to go forward to be in a position to get the return pass. It’s something we have seen teams do a lot against us, so why can’t we do that? There are many other small things that we have been working on in recent times and when we see that on the field it is always a great feeling.”

Squad goals

It is not just about that one goal against Belgium, mind you. That is just an example to illustrate this team’s continuing evolution. The Indian men’s hockey team have been enjoying good results, the Tokyo Olympics being the biggest example but even in the Pro League where they produced moments of magic, but also just plain old determination. A team which used to concede a lot of late goals much to the frustration of fans, have now made it a habit to rescue matches late on. It’s not the perfect team yet, but it’s a team that fights till the very end. It is a consequence of hard work, but also building a squad that is connected off the field.

“Absolutely, when the bonding is good off the field and there is understanding, it automatically comes across on the field. The thing this, our players are all young and almost the same age group more or less… barring Sreejesh, mind you,” Manpreet said, bursting out in laughter.

He continued after a few moments, “So the understanding is great, and the bonding off the field is really strong. There is no senior-junior division, on the field or outside. Players can even tell me to do this and that. We keep pulling each other’s legs, keeping things fun. The environment is great. When you go to training, you are happy to get there. Dil se karoge toh, automatically acche hone lagte hain paaji. And it reflects in our game.”

And he uses the example of Sreejesh to highlight the environment in the camp.

“Even being the senior most, he never shows any sort of attitude like that. He’s always together with all of us, off the field as well he’s really funny. He’s been playing for so long but he never shows that he’s that experienced or senior. Even though he is old (laughs again).”

Part of how this unity has developed is the time the squad spent together during the Covid-19 lockdowns at the SAI Bengaluru campus before Tokyo Olympics.

“It was a difficult time for everyone across the world and wasn’t different for us, here in the camp and our parents, family was elsewhere. We decided we need to find out a way to make this beneficial for us, how can we use this to our advantage. We made an attempt to understand the background of players. How much did Amit have to sacrifice to get here and what all did his parents have to do to get him this far. How much did Sree bhai have to sacrifice, etc. Emotionally, we were all connected by these stories of struggles and sacrifices,” Manpreet said.

“One more thing we did before going to the Olympic Games was to understand: ‘Why was it important for *you* to go to the Games and win a medal?’ We understood what was driving everyone individually. That emotional attachment made it our common goal.”

Leadership style

Building this unity is evidently the one thing that Manpreet is really proud of. When asked if he was a leader even in his school days, he vehemently denied any such good-boy-image, adding that he was a backbencher who used to get into trouble. But once he began leading hockey teams, he just had one thing on his mind.

“For me it was always about being together with everyone. Be open in conversation. When in 2009 I became a captain for the U16s first, that was my only aim... junior or senior, they should know they can always talk to Manpreet. That one quality I see to bring everyone together, maybe that is one thing that has really helped me,” he said.

It is the sort of thing he has learned from couple of international captains he has worked with in the past.

“I want to mention Moritz Fürste, the former German captain who I played with in the Hockey India League. One incident that I still remember – I was not playing well and the half time break came along. He just took me aside for a quick chat and told me, ‘Manpreet I believe in you. You are a good player.’ Just two minutes with lots of positivity and that changed my match around. Then there was Barry Middleton, former England captain. He told me about keeping the squad together, treating everyone equally. ‘No one makes mistakes wantedly, every player on the field must be equal, give them confidence.’ These things I have carried with me,” he said.

As India seek their first-ever Commonwealth Games gold medal, Manpreet is back at the helm, refreshed after a break from leadership duties, armed with a new perspective of things as a father, while retaining an amount of child-like enthusiasm that he believes keeps him close to his teammates. It’s been quite the journey for a kid who sneaked out of a locked room as 10-year-old just to go play hockey with his brother.

“Only regret is that my father was not alive to see us on the podium in Tokyo, it was his dream. But the journey otherwise has been great, with my family’s support, our coaches, teammates. I have been lucky through it all. Sometimes when I am with my mother at home, and we are talking, she tells me, ‘Arrey Manny we never thought you’d come this far’. I said, ‘neither did I!’ It was a dream to play for India. As a kid, I wanted to play hockey to improve my family’s condition, hoping I could contribute. I never thought I’d come this far,” the Tokyo Olympics medal-winning captain signed off.