The Indian hockey team has begun life under new coach Sjoerd Marijne on a winning note, with their triumph in Dhaka in the 2017 Asia Cup. They were playing with an aggressive approach and scored 28 goals in the tournament in seven matches, the most among the eight teams.
However, what baffled many was one of India’s finest midfielders Sardar Singh playing the role of a defender. Playing at full-back Sardar was making sure that goals were hard to come by for the opposition. With new captain Manpreet Singh marshalling in the midfield, the team looked in perfect rhythm with Marijne beaming on the sidelines.
With Manpreet dictating terms in the midfield, has Sardar been given the mantle of the defense with Rupinder Pal, Varun Kumar and Surender Kumar also staking claim for it?
“Sardar always used to play at the half-line and has played for India for almost nine years now. A player who plays at the half-line garners enough experience to play both sides of the line. Sardar’s ball control, long slam shots is a plus point. I think that is why Sjoerd Marijne played him as a full-back. The requirement of a full-back is to have top ball control and have a brilliant slam shot, which Sardar fulfills,” Sardar’s longtime teammate and former Olympian Prabhjot Singh told The Field.
Step in right direction
Sardar isn’t new to this role. He has previously played on the defensive line. “The role he played in Asia, he has played previously. During 2009-2010 he was on the defensive line and is experienced as well. Even he wanted to play in a defensive role himself back then. Today his utility is more on the defensive line,” Arjun Halappa, former India captain, told The Field.
On paper, the move seems to have worked with the team conceding only six goals in the seven matches they played in Dhaka. Former national selector MK Kaushik thinks it was the right call.
“Sardar is a very talented player and can play in any role. He is so skilled that he can play attacking hockey, can control the midfield and defend as well. The team has to utilize such a player as per their requirement. It all depends on the planning. With Rupinder Pal and few other players injured, I think a mature player like Sardar fits the bill,” Kaushik told The Field.
Is Manpreet’s pace a factor?
It is also worth noting that India captain Manpreet was exceptional in the midfield during the Asia Cup. He was making the long runs from defense to offense and made sure that the pace of the game did not drop. Along with quick passes and long balls towards India’s forward line, he was one of the best midfielders of the tournament.
However, is Manpreet’s pace and Sardar’s age a factor in the tactical switch made by the team management?
“Manpreet is young and is an attacking player and that is why he is playing in the midfield. He can attack and can also pullback and play a defensive role. As for Sardar, age is not on his side now. He cannot go up and down the pitch like Manpreet does. I think that is why Marijne played Sardar in a defensive role and Manpreet in midfield,” said Prabhjot.
However, Arjun feels that the defense has to make more runs compared to the midfielders. “Pace is never a factor according to me. It is the requirement of the team. Today in hockey the defense has to run a lot more compared to the offensive players. I don’t think there is an issue of being fast or of physical fitness. If he is comfortable on defense, that is that. He is a good defender and that will be beneficial for the team in the end,” said Arjun.
Sardar’s future role
With the Hockey World League final coming up in December in Bhubaneswar, Marijne will look not to make too many changes to the squad. With players such as Rupinder Pal itching to make a comeback, Sardar’s role in future is up for questioning.
“I think Sardar will be seen in a defensive role because of experience. With tougher opponents, you need your most experienced players. No doubt the youngsters have done a brilliant job but they will not be used to the pressure of facing top teams. The Asia competition and the upcoming competition is vastly different,” said Kaushik.
Even Arjun believes that Sardar will be more useful in defense that in the midfield in the upcoming WHL final. “Every tournament is different from the other. Next up is the World Hockey League final and there will be higher ranked teams there. You will have to look at the team balance before each game and then decide who plays where. If Manpreet works in midfield and Sardar in defense then it is fine to stick to that formula as well,” said Arjun.
With the team clearly dominating the field in Asia, HWL Final is a far tougher proposition. Success at the top level is a better metric to gauge this team and for Marijne, playing Sardar in defence might just be the right move.