On Sunday, Ramandeep Singh left the field smiling. To some, it might have seemed a little strange. His team, Punjab, were the favourites and they had just lost the final of the national hockey championships in Gwalior to the Railways.
But to those who knew Ramandeep, the smile had a deeper meaning.
Eight months back, the the national championships were not even a blip on Ramandeep’s radar. During the match against Pakistan in the Champions Trophy in June, he had to leave the stadium on crutches after picking up an injury. It was an injury that was serious enough to put the hockey career of the 25-year-old in doubt.
“It was mental torture and the toughest phase of my life,” Ramandeep told Scroll.in. “I did not know if I would be able to play hockey again. The doctors said it will take two years for rehabilitation. Suddenly, I wasn’t able to play the game I had devoted all my life to.”
MRI scans had revealed that he had damaged the meniscus, ligament and cartilage of his right knee... all at the same time. Surgery was the only option. The damage to three components had to be filled by removing the same part from the right side of the knee and replacing the damaged part on the inside.
After the injury came the battle with self-doubts and loneliness.
“It was the toughest period of my life. You are always alone and the pain is not only physically but mentally you need to be stronger,” Ramandeep said after the final.
But the 25-year-old fought through all of it and, on Sunday, won the silver medal with Hockey Punjab. The smile, though, wasn’t for the silver. He would have loved a gold. Rather, it was a reflection of a very different battle that had been fought and won.
Last year, Ramandeep was dropped for the Commonwealth Games, missed the Asian Games and World Cup because of the injury and lost his place in the team. It became even more frustrating when he watched India lose before the medal-round matches in Asian Games and World Cup.
“For the Commonwealth, the coach believed I didn’t fit in his strategies. I was not expecting this. At the time, my mindset was to prove that I belong to the team. I got an opportunity at the Champions Trophy but suffered the injury,” he said.
Ramandeep’s Punjab team-mate Akashdeep Singh, who also plays for India, believes it affected the team’s performance.
“We played big tournaments and perhaps there was lack of understanding at times. I had him [Ramandeep] in the forward line and we had a great chemistry. For example, he knew which part of the field I am comfortable taking the ball. I missed that aspect,” Akashdeep said.
This not the first time Ramandeep is dealing with injury but the previous ones weren’t as serious, a fact that only dawned upon him later.
“You are alone in this phase. I had missed the 2014 World Cup because of an injury. I was a junior then and thought I would get another chance but what do you tell yourself now. 2022 is a long way off,” he said.
Even for Ramandeep’s family, his injury was not easy to deal with.
“When you are active and suddenly you are out of action, they also panic. They are used to watching me on TV. The family is dependent on me for everything.”
It was only during his rehabilitation that Ramandeep told his family that he could be out of the game for upto two years. But by that time, the doubts had crept in.
“For around three months, I was undergoing rehab. It was like starting from zero. The only reason I could get through this phase was because I had the guts to bear the pain. It is a slow and painful process,” he added.
Drawing a comparison with his 2014 face injury Ramandeep says it took him three months to recover but it did not affect his game.
“Now, I had a non-functioning knee... so I could not even play. When you are training with the team, it’s very easy. But when you train alone, focussing on the same leg which was injured... doing the same exercises, it’s very boring and frustration creeps in,” he said.
“I read some books for motivation but not too many. This was the the fourth time that I had suffered a major injury and I thought this will also pass slowly. Our trainers motivated me a lot. They kept saying ‘you can do it. This not the first time you are doing this so it’s okay’.”
His teammates also stepped up. Akashdeep, who was present in the hospital during the surgery, was always by his side.
“Being injured is always hard. I used to tell him that think positively. I told him that there have been players were seriously injured but still playing, like Birender Lakra. It’s tough for some time but if you rehabilitate properly, you can always come back into the team,” said Akashdeep.
But Ramandeep knew that the comeback won’t be easy. He decided to set small goals for himself on the path to recovery, the first of which was to stop thinking about the comeback.
“If you try to come back targeting a particular tournament, you will not heal. It is a slow, step-by-step process.
“The women’s team was in the camp, so I decided to train with them for sessions like shooting and low intensity. Only when they did had high intensity sessions, I did not train with them.”
As he slowly got his fitness back, he was hopeful to play at the national championships. But his match-fitness was still a doubt. One only gets match-fit by playing matches and he hadn’t done a lot of that.
“I am still not hundred percent fit. When you are out for eight months, you aren’t confident when you take the field. But once I was here, I did not have that fear. I thought if I performed well here, I could at least get back in the team.”
After scoring four goals and getting some quality on-field time in Gwalior, Ramandeep is confident of making a comeback to the Indian team as well.
“It all depends on the selection committee but I am confident because I was playing with Akash, Rupinder and I have an understanding with which helps the team play better. I might have been the best Ramandeep here,” he says.
“Before injury everyone knows you are a good player but when you return from injury, you have to prove that you are a good player once again. I think I have managed to do that.”