When Manpreet Singh was 10, his elder brothers Amandeep and Sukhraj locked him inside a room in their house at Mithapur, Punjab, to prevent him from playing hockey. The boy, they feared, might hurt himself. Sure, he was attracted to the sport after seeing the prizes that they won. Young Manpreet was also inspired by Pargat Singh, the former captain of the Indian hockey team, who was from the same district of Jalandhar. But he was a little too small to wield a hockey stick, the elder brothers thought.

So, when he escaped from the room to join his brothers for hockey coaching, one of them raised his hand to give him a well-intended thwack so that he’ll be more patient. But the coach told the brother that if the boy’s so desperate to play, then let him play.

Sixteen years later, now, the brothers would probably recall, reminisce and recount that day when they locked him up. For, the little brother escaped the confines to enter the Indian men’s hockey team; raise his level to become its indispensable midfielder; win numerous medals, and grow his legacy tall enough to win the Arjuna award.

Early years

Long before the Arjuna award, a prize of Rs 500 won by Manpreet in his preteens convinced his family that he’s capable of pursuing the game without hurting himself. In 2005, Manpreet started training at Surjit Hockey Academy in Jalandhar, one of the best hockey training centres in the country.

In six years, he was picked to play for the Indian junior hockey team. In 2013, he was made the captain of the team that played the junior men’s hockey World Cup in New Delhi. A year before that, Manpreet also had the special moment that athletes across the country would long for: be a part of the Olympics. India fared poorly in both the big tournaments, finishing 10th in the junior World Cup and 12th in the Olympics in London.

But Manpreet’s individual skills were tough to miss. Even as the men’s team coaches kept changing like participants in a musical chair, the constantly improving Manpreet was favoured by all and continues to be an integral part of the squad.

Tryst with captaincy

When regular skipper PR Sreejesh was ruled out of the team with a knee injury in June last year, the team management felt Manpreet was the best man to fill the vacancy despite the presence of a few seniors in the squad.

Till the return of Sreejesh, which took several months, Manpreet led the team – a mix of youngsters and veterans, including the recently retired Sardar Singh. In this period, India had some memorable wins and some tough losses. With the last of the losses, which came during the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Manpreet was asked to hand over the reins to Sreejesh again.

But leadership to Manpreet wasn’t an obsession.

“Personally, I’ve never thought about the captaincy,” he had told The Hindu after Sreejesh was reappointed as the skipper. “My first priority is to be on the pitch. If I’m playing for India, it’s a big deal for me. It makes no difference if I’m the captain or not. We’re like a family. And we will remain that way. Our philosophy is that on the field everyone is a leader in his position. Because Sreejesh [the goalkeeper] cannot play up-field.”

Manpreet, because of his position as a midfielder, is central (in a literal sense as well) to India’s game. In coach Harendra Singh’s philosophy of Total Hockey, Manpreet assumes one of the most important roles in the team.

The men in blue, by failing to defend the gold medal at the Asian Games, have disappointed themselves. To redeem from that failure they have an opportunity: the World Cup in November at Odisha.

With fellow playmaker Sardar retired from the game, there will be greater responsibility on Manpreet in the midfield to inspire the team to its second World Cup title in front of a home crowd.