When PR Sreejesh replaced Sardar Singh as India captain ahead of the Rio Olympics, it was a decision welcomed with glee. Sardar’s career was at its lowest ebb, a lot due to off-field issues. Hockey India (HI) bosses, thus, put an arm around Sardar and the armband around Sreejesh, in a glittering send-off ceremony for the Rio Olympics squad.

Eight months into the job, Sreejesh met with a nasty injury in Malaysia. A jammed knee in the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup match against Australia led to a medial collateral ligament tear. Five months from then, Sreejesh is yet to get match-fit. Manpreet Singh, who took over midway in Malaysia, is still on captaincy duty. And a team source told The Field that Manpreet is India’s captain now for keeps.

Ready for the role

Manpreet has come up the ranks putting in the hard yards, having even captained India at the 2013 Junior World Cup besides winning the Sultan of Johor Cup the same year. He has that experience to lead and with juniors being transitioned into the senior team, Manpreet will know the exact teething issues they might face and how to fix those.

The idea, said the source, was mooted during the recent tour of Europe, where Manpreet’s captaincy impressed High Performance Director David John.

“In Europe, Manpreet was outstanding as captain. He led the team very well, and John was particularly happy with how he handled the young players. He is going to be the permanent captain and continue with his on-field role,” the source said.

India selected nine members of the 2016 Junior World Cup-winning team for Europe and went on to beat a first-choice Netherlands in two consecutive matches.

But the development isn’t only because of Manpreet’s leadership qualities. Sreejesh isn’t a bad captain either. He too has led by example and showed that in his stellar show under the post, especially during shootouts - the most remarkable of which was during the 2014 Asian Games final against Pakistan.

However, the fact that Sreejesh would have had spent a year off the pitch before he returns for the Commonwealth Games (CWG) next year, it will make little sense to make him the leader of a group that would have gone through a sea change by then.

Big season coming up

And there’s also a bit of technical logic to it.

If you take more than 40 seconds to execute a penalty corner, the captain is asked to leave the field as penalty; and if goalkeeper is the captain, then the team will be left without the strongest brick in its defensive wall. It makes little sense, even if India took that risk at the Rio Olympics.

But before the big-ticket events in 2018, which includes the Asian Games and World Cup besides the CWG, India need to finish 2017 well.

A seventh-place finish at the Hockey World League (HWL) Semifinals in London has led to a lot of questions, which need to be answered at the Asia Cup in October and the HWL Finals in December.

The team has a new coach in Sjoerd Marijne days before the Asia Cup, which means the acclimatization period needs to be short without any further compromise on performance.

The Asia Cup squad includes critically-watched seniors like Sardar Singh and SV Sunil. They can no longer be on the plane based on reputation. The clock is ticking for them, and by giving them the Asia Cup ticket, HI has possibly thrown a challenge asking to show what they have left to offer.

This is truer in light of the fact that a relatively inexperienced team beat European champions Netherlands recently and those young legs are close on the heels of under-performers, be it the seniors.

Sacking coach Roelant Oltmans was a bullet HI bit and one would hope that the federation won’t step back from doing the same for non-performing seniors.