After SV Sunil’s shot went wide in the sudden death against Malaysia in the semi-finals of Asian Games, he and his teammates were hit by a tragedy, which they hoped wouldn’t befall them. Of course, a match automatically gets enveloped by uncertainty as it enters the sudden death stage. And, it’s harsh to make Sunil – who’d been playing well – the scapegoat for India’s loss. But India were the overwhelming favourites to win gold. And, it hurt that they couldn’t even have a shot at it. The loss against Malaysia was their own making though. Not for the first time, they conceded a late goal – Malaysia scored literally in the last minute of the regulation time to make the scoreline 2-2 and enforce the shootout.
Among the few crouching on the field that evening with his hope shattered was Manpreet Singh, the current Indian skipper.
Ahead of the Hockey World Cup in Bhubaneswar, he told Scroll “we are working as a team on making a conscious effort on not conceding late goals and we have been training really hard to make sure that does not happen.”
Excerpts from the interview:-
You are going to lead the Indian team in a World Cup going to be played at home. When you learnt about it, what was the first thought that came to your mind?
I do not feel tensed. There is no captaincy pressure as such. I just feel that if I am going on the field I need to perform my level best for the team and just need to maintain my basic structure. I will be looking to focus on my skills and play the best hockey that I can.
In 2013, you led the team, which had some of your current teammates, in the Junior World Cup in India. Will that experience help?
They are playing really well. Simranjeet Singh has the ability to provide those great passes. Akashdeep Singh is a really good goal scorer and is quite experienced now. Dilpreet Singh and Mandeep have scored a lot of goals in Asian Games, Champions trophy and Asian Champions Trophy as well. They are doing very well and I hope they would do it in the World Cup as well.
With Sardar Singh retired and SV Sunil and Rupinder Pal Singh also out, is there more pressure on seniors like you and Sreejesh?
Actually no, I am accompanied by some really talented midfielders like Hardik Singh, Nilkanta Sharma, Chinglensana, Sumit Kumar, who are doing really well and they make things easier for me. They are very fit individuals who are good with the ball. We all will try and do our best and pass the ball to the forwards.
How difficult was it for the team to move on from the Asian Games defeat? What do you do to motivate the team?
Yes, we are disappointed by the fact that we did not win Gold at the Asian Games as that was our main objective, so the whole team is disappointed by that. Thus, we are working as a team on making a conscious effort on not conceding late goals and we have been training really hard to make sure that does not happen. The team is self-motivated for playing in the World Cup.
You have worked with many coaches. How will you compare their styles to that of Harendra Singh?
It has been a good journey with him so far. We started from the Champions Trophy and we played really well in that tournament. Yes, we did have a disappointing campaign in the Asian Games but that is part and parcel of the game. He has bought real positive vibes in the dressing room, he backs every player to play to their strengths and focus on their game. He also motivates us by believing that we can beat any team in this competition. It is an added advantage that Harendra sir is Indian. It helps as the players can understand the language and also the players can express it to the coach. Also, he is a positive guy and has worked with most of the players, so he knows each and everyone’s game.
Can you talk about your own performance this year?
Personally, I still feel that there is room for improvement in my game. No player is perfect as per my knowledge. I watch old videos of my own performances and see in which aspects of the game I can improve.
You have played over 200 games for India now. What has changed for you since the time you picked the hockey stick for the first time?
Honestly, I did not feel that I would be playing these many games for India. I started playing hockey as there was really famous hockey player in our town Pargat Singh. I remember people chanting his name and I was really awestruck by that and I wanted to be like him. Although, when I got selected in the national team, my aim was to go a level above. I wanted to do well for my team and win many medals for the nation.
What’s been your most unforgettable memory since the time you started playing hockey?
I think winning gold in the Asian Champions Trophy. It was a really big tournament for me that time. Also, getting selected for the national team for the first time. I was just 18 or 19 that time; I was really overjoyed by that moment. People were congratulating me for that achievement, which was a really proud moment for me.
(Manpreet Singh is supported by Red Bull India and this interview was arranged by them)