In 1992, Didar Singh became the first hockey player from the little village of Sant Nagar, Haryana, to represent India at the Olympics. Hockey, thereafter, became a sport, an activity and a part of life of the Sant Nagar kids. They would stomp the grounds with hockey sticks in their hands, striking the ball hard, perhaps wanting to be the next Didar Singh.
This was six years after the birth of Didar’s younger brother, Sardar. Hockey was all over young Sardar’s village. It was in his family. It was among his friends. And, when he was growing up, it consumed him.
So, in a way, Sardar Singh didn’t choose hockey; it chose him.
If there isn’t such a thing as destiny, then Sardar Singh is a great coincidence, a happy accident that happened to Indian hockey.
At 18, six years after he started playing hockey, Sardar and his friends decided to somehow get to USA to establish their lives there. For, playing international hockey was a far-fetched dream, then. Playing with his hero, Dhanraj Pillay, for India occurred only in the realm of fantasy for Sardar. He was a teenager unaware of his talent, a soft-spoken junior needing advice; a prodigy, who didn’t know about the legacy that he would leave behind.
He also didn’t see the eyes that observed and astonished at his talent. A pair of them belonged to his childhood hero. “He must have been 14 or 15 when I was at a camp and Sardar, who was part of Namdhari XI – one of the best sides of that time – was training there,” said Pillay. “I was watching him and told [the current Indian men’s team coach] Hari [Harendra Singh] that he’d go on to become one of India’s best players.”
Here was his hero prophesying his greatness. And, Sardar thought all this was a dream.
Despite being agnostic of his own greatness, Sardar worked hard. Those who have observed him closely would say that his greatness was made of hard work.
“He’s someone who comes for training well before it begins and leaves at the end,” said former India captain Viren Rasquinha. “In that way, he should be one of the role models of Indian professional hockey players.”
When Sardar had reached the milestone of 300 international matches, Rasquinha had spoken about his physical transformation – from a scrawny 15-year-old to a physique resembling sculptures of Greek Gods. “He was so thin, weak,” Rasquinha had said. “The way he transformed himself physically… he’s now one of the strongest, fittest players ever in Indian hockey.”
Fourteen matches after that milestone, 12 years after his first appearance for the Indian senior team, Sardar has decided to call it a day. “I have played enough hockey in my career. Twelve years is a long time. Now it’s time for the future generation to take over,” he said.
‘Wherever he went, he was one of the fittest players’
For 12 years, he played in all positions, received all accolades (and a few brickbats) and became one of the most celebrated names in Indian hockey.
For this reason, Pillay believes he must be given a grand farewell by Hockey India. Many of the big names in Indian hockey who deserved a memorable valediction, he feels, weren’t given one. “In my role as the manager for the Indian team during the 2009 Azlan Shah Cup, I saw that Sardar was a great player on the field and a good person off it,” he said. “Despite being soft-spoken, he, as the leader of the team, handled the mix of youngsters and seniors well. And I could see that he respected the former players of the team.”
Sardar has only 17 goals against his name in 314 games but this number is a poor reflection of his greatness. Despite being an all-round player capable of playing in any position, the genius of Sardar was best-witnessed in the midfield, where he fed the balls to the strikers from long distances and seemingly improbable angles.
Former India goalkeeper Ashish Ballal, speaking of Sardar’s midfield exploits, pointed out what he calls “the Sardar pass” – an on-the-run, backhand pass from the left. “I am such a big fan of his style of play,” Ballal said. “Usually, [right-handed] players pass from right to left; he does it from left to right. It’s difficult to master. It’s such a deceptive pass and he can pull it off with great accuracy. He started doing that. So, now, a lot of people from different teams have started doing that.”
The forwards of the current Indian team, Ballal reckons, will miss Sardar’s services in the midfield. “Over the years, we have seen may midfielders who predominantly play the parallel pass; they never play the vertical pass,” he said. “Sardar was one player who would take the risk and make the 20-yard pass, 30-yard pass and even the 50-yard pass.”
Former Olympic gold medallist Vasudevan Baskaran feels that Sardar’s training regimen and fitness defined his career. “Wherever he went, he was one of the fittest players.” Despite his age of 32, Sardar can’t be questioned about his fitness. For, he has numbers to prove. Ahead of the Asian Games, he scored 21.4 in the yo-yo test – higher than India cricket captain Virat Kohli.
Baskaran believes Sardar will have a lot to offer to the game even after he stops playing it. “He should not keep quiet after his retirement,” he said. “With more time, he should be able to involve himself in higher level training schedules. He can train players from Haryana, which is a good belt for hockey. He can be part of the coaching staff. And, that’s the best way to give something back for hockey.”
Sardar himself has acknowledged, on many occasions, that he owes everything to the game. He could have been in USA, driving a truck like a friend of his does or doing something else. But hockey made the boy from Sant Nagar the country’s youngest captain, an Asian Games gold-medallist, a two-time Olympian… a legend.