When Sreejesh hopped off the team bus on crutches, India had already been dealt a psychological blow. Their captain and most reliable player was not available anymore in the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup. A right knee injury had ruled Sreejesh out, and with two must-win games lined up, India needed someone to step up and raise the bar. On Wednesday, against Japan, it turned out to be Mandeep Singh – the striker who is always there when the opportunity presents itself.

Japan had all but served the tournament’s first upset, but for Mandeep, who brought India back every time the Japanese went ahead – scoring India’s second, third and fourth goal in a 4-3 cliffhanger win.

The lean, lanky striker’s hat-trick saved India the blushes and an early exit from the race to finals. Once again, what stood out in the 22-year-old’s performance was his sense of positioning that he thrives on.

‘Positioning earns me goals’

The boy from Jalandhar owes his success to the Hockey India League, in which his striking prowess got noticed as the erstwhile Ranchi Rhinos won the inaugural edition in 2013. The same year he broke into the senior India squad and has since been a force at both junior and senior level.

Mandeep played his last Under-21 tournament at the junior World Cup last year, which India won, and for a youngster, he knows what are his strengths and works around those.

“I work on my positioning a lot, this is what earns me goals. I have done the best I could, and I am happy that it contributed in the team’s victory,” Mandeep said after the energy-sapping game on Wednesday.

‘Dying moments were tough’

Swift on the counter-attack, teams like Japan can test an opposition’s defence to the T. It was best highlighted in the third goal Japan scored through Genki Mitani. Mandeep had just drawn India level at 2-2 in the 45th min, but 15 seconds later, on a counter, Mitani made it 3-2.

“It was very tough in the dying moments, because it was important for us to win this match. Had we lost, our chances of reaching the final would have diminished,” Mandeep, who scored his next two goals in the 51st and 58th minute, said.

Mandeep’s match-winning effort earned praise in oodles from coach Roelant Oltmans, who called him a “crazy guy”.

“He is always dangerous, a crazy guy, very difficult to defend,” Oltmans said at the press conference. “In the circle, out of nowhere he creates chances. We have seen that many times. He is getting better and better, still very young. He just turned 22 in January.”

‘He is super fit’

Playing as a central forward, Mandeep has now five goals under his belt in three games, which is half of the 10 goals India have scored so far. In fact, Mandeep and Akash (one goal) are the only two strikers who have scored for India. The rest of the goals have been scored by drag-flickers Harmanpreet (3) and Rupinder Pal Singh (1).

“If you look at the number of goals he has scored, for sure (he is our best striker),” said Oltmans.

The coach also had a special mention reserved about Mandeep’s “regaining’ ability”, which turns him into first defender when the opponents snatch possession.

“First of all, he is super fit. You can see not only in his attacking actions but also the way he is putting pressure on opponents. He is working on regaining, which is an important part of our defensive structure, and he is leading in that as well. It’s something special that he is capable to score so many goals and at the same time he is more or less the first defender when the opponent has got possession,” the coach explained.

Unlucky to miss Rio ticket

Mandeep played the 2014 World Cup and was part of the 2016 team when India won their maiden Champions Trophy silver medal. However, the Jalandhar Surjit Hockey Academy product was unlucky to be ignored for the Rio Olympics last year.

But he is making all the right moves now to stay well on course for the 2020 Games in Tokyo. But before that, he will have to keep his performance graph up in next year’s Asian Games, Commonwealth Games and the World Cup.

Oltmans has no doubt that Mandeep will be right up there.

“Wait until he is 24 or 25, probably by the (Tokyo) Olympics, and he will be of even higher quality,” the Dutchman reckoned.