Of the many moments of joy that India experienced in the first two days of the Champions Trophy in Breda, Netherlands, the most endearing one is that of the players and staff – some kneeling on one leg and the rest standing – folding their hands as a mark of respect to the one who has played the most number of international matches among them: Sardar Singh.
Sardar also folds his hands thanking his team, standing a few feet away from them. He’s an outlier.
At 300 international matches, he’s played at all positions, received all accolades (and a few brickbats), earned the right to be called a legend of Indian hockey. For he’s only the sixth Indian to reach the milestone.
Among this elite club of players is Dhanraj Pillay, who tells Scroll.in that it requires, apart from skill and fitness, a lot of sacrifice. The veteran recounts the time when he was playing in Singapore when his father passed away.
“When you play for that long, you have to dedicate your life to hockey. You might not be able to be with your family to participate in the good things and the bad things that happen.”
Fitness is another aspect that Pillay says is crucial to longevity. And, Sardar has done well to keep himself fit for the most part of his career.
Former Indian captain Viren Rasquinha recalls meeting a scrawny 15-year-old Sardar in a camp. “He was so thin, weak. So, the way he transformed himself physically… he’s now one of the strongest, fittest players ever in Indian hockey. It’s been remarkable. His body is like a rock,” he says.
Rasquinha also provides a testimony to his work ethics. “He’s someone who comes for training well before it begins and leaves at the end. In that way, he should be one of the role models of Indian professional hockey players.”
Pillay also recalls the time he saw young Sardar playing for Namdhari side “when he was 14 or 15” and telling his friend and the present coach of the Indian men’s team, Harendra Singh, that “the boy will go on to become one of the best-ever players for India.”
Three hundred matches later, the boy’s stature as one of the legends of the sport has been agreed by his peers and predecessors.
But over the last two years, the 31-year-old’s spot in the team has been uncertain. The explosive speed that he was renowned for in the midfield waned as he crossed 30. His form dipped, too. He was no more the lynchpin of the team. And, the team management, despite his reputation, excluded him for the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast earlier this year.
India’s ex-coach Sjoerd Marijne had opted for speed over reputation. But Harendra, after he took over, acknowledged that Sardar’s experience will be crucial as the team’s getting ready for the all-important Asian Games in August.
Sardrar’s younger colleague in the midfield, Manpreet Singh, also spoke about the importance of his presence in the team. “Sardar is an immensely experienced midfielder. His presence in the midfield will give a lot of motivation to others. He has the ability to give long, skilful passes,” he said.
Despite the reduction in speed, Rasquinha says, Sardar has still been able to be an integral part of the Indian squad because of his versatility. “He’s played across different positions, full back to central midfield to an attacking role. I can’t think of many players in the last three decades who’s been this versatile.”
In the first two matches of the ongoing Champions Trophy, there weren’t enough instances to surely say that Sardar’s back to his best. But his performance this tournament will determine Sardar’s future in the team.
Pillay, however, has no doubts about it. “For the next two years, he will be India’s best centre half.”