Exclusive: "Dream come true to wear blue again," says Ramandeep Singh after battling back-to-back injuries
It was a fateful Saturday in April last year when Mubashar Ali's lethal last-minute drag-flick found the back of the net, silencing the Indian section of the crowd at Gold Coast and leaving stunned television viewers gaping in disbelief back home.
Arch-rivals Pakistan had come from behind to record a 2-2 draw against Manpreet Singh and co. in a pool match of the Commonwealth Games, and the Men in Green raised their arms in celebration almost as if they had pulled off a victory.
No surprise then that the hockey world waited with bated breath to witness the two heavyweights cross swords in the opening match of the Champions Trophy in June.
When the Indians had split points against their long-time rivals at Gold Coast, Ramandeep Singh, who had been left out of the side could only shrug his shoulders in disappointment.
The Indian striker did make it to Breda, however, and was determined to tilt the scales to give his side a winning start in the last edition of the prestigious Champions Trophy.
We had played out a 2-2 draw against Pakistan in the Commonwealth Games and had therefore made up our minds that we simply had to beat them at the Champions Trophy.
A see-saw battle ensued once the action began at Breda, but it was Ramandeep who opened the scoring for his team just before half-time. As the jubilant Indians celebrated, the goalscorer himself was beginning to sense an overpowering sense of numbness around his right knee.
I did feel a sensation of pins and needles during the first half, but felt I could continue in the second. The score was 1-0 and I felt I had to play. I asked the physio to tape the area and I did play the second half - I kept feeling the pain but it was not acute enough to go off the field. Once the match got over, I could scarcely walk.
Ramandeep helped Lalit Upadhyay score India's fourth goal at the death, but as his teammates gathered to savour the fluent 4-0 win, the limping striker knew deep inside that he had sustained a major injury.
A distraught Ramandeep was flown back home and had to be operated upon for an ACL tear which saw him missing out on the Asian Games and the World Cup last year.
What followed was a slow and agonizing recovery process, after which the gutsy forward made it to the Senior Nationals earlier this year but failed to make it to the team bound for the Azlan Shah Cup.
In an exclusive and emotional interaction with Sportskeeda, Ramandeep Singh, who is part of the squad that will take on Russia in the Olympic qualifiers talks us through his epic comeback and reveals why he was not on the flight to Ipoh - as he recalls the various thoughts that crossed his mind before donning the India jersey at the FIH Series Finals. Excerpts below -
Q. All your fans are extremely happy to see you back in the Indian forward line. How difficult has it been to reach peak fitness levels after your comeback?
When you make a comeback, especially after an injury, you are always under the scanner and people analyze your performance at length - which means you have to put in a great effort each time you make your way on to the pitch.
I was not at my peak initially in the pool matches of the FIH Series Finals and when one is recovering from a major injury one, they need time to regain complete fitness.
I did well in the important matches that followed and also scored at crucial times.
I had slipped into depression for a while as my injury was not ordinary. I used to consult Kanwalpreet Singh (former India defender) as he had suffered a knee injury during his playing days and had to cut short his career on account of the same.
Kanwalpreet (who is now with Punjab Police) was emphatic about the fact that he did not want my career to come to a halt because of injury. His words gave me the strength to endure the toughest phases but I felt, at times, that I would not be able to make it.
Q. Even after doing well in the Senior Nationals, you were not selected for the Azlan Shah Cup. What exactly happened during that period?
I did well in the Senior Nationals - much better than I had thought I would but fractured my ankle during the finals. The ankle fracture took another three months to heal and I had to focus on my ankle in addition to my knee - those were trying times for sure.
If I had not sustained the ankle injury, I might have been able to play the Azlan Shah Cup at Ipoh.
Q. As a current player who followed the Odisha World Cup but did not play, how would you evaluate India's performance?
I was injured during the 2014 World Cup as well, after I was hit on the face by a ball and, of course, I missed Odisha 2018. Missing two World Cups in a row is extremely disappointing, but when the team performs well, it acts as a balm which soothes the pain to a great extent.
I did feel guilty at times - as other non-participating players would - that my presence could have made a difference but I feel a lot of youngsters got a chance to showcase their talents in a big stage like the World Cup.
I feel the players should have been more alert in a crucial match like the quarterfinal, as a few mistakes cost us the match. Overall, I feel the team did well in Bhubaneswar.
We played out a draw with Belgium, who went on to win the title. We also topped the pool and managed to gain direct entry into the quarterfinals whereas the Belgians had to play a crossover to make it to the last eight.
In the really big matches, what counts are the minute elements which need to be controlled. A momentary lapse in concentration can cost you a knockout game in a tournament like the World Cup or the Olympics, even if you have played well for the remainder of the match.
I feel we had the upper hand against the Dutch but failed to take our chances while Holland made the most of theirs - and controlled the latter part of the quarterfinal. The Dutch were a far more experienced side which consisted of players who had taken part in three World Cups and Olympic Games.
Q. How did it feel while playing the FIH Series Finals - your comeback tournament. Were you nervous or excited - what was the feeling like?
Ramandeep: I was excited to play for India at the FIH World Series Finals - wearing the India jersey after a year-and-a-half was a feeling I cannot describe in words - it was a dream come true to wear blue again.
Training in the camps is very different from playing an international match wearing blue, but it does take a while to get the confidence back. Personnel from the women's camp also helped me out - Scientific Advisor Wayne Lombard and Sonika assisted me a lot during my rehab and recovery period.
When I went home on crutches, it was not a pleasant sight to behold for my family but I feel their prayers have helped me overcome this difficult phase.
I did well during the recent Belgium tour and I feel all the strikers are combining well.
Q. Injuries happen in sport – as someone who has been through such a serious injury and made a great comeback, what would your advice be to other players who could go through the same?
A never-say-die attitude is extremely essential for any player who is looking to come out of injury. Going through surgery is a frightening prospect for any athlete as one has to start from scratch after the procedure.
A positive outlook is also an absolute prerequisite for a sportsman who is aiming to return to action post-injury and the initial push has to come from within. When one dares to take the first step, others then lend a helping hand for you to continue on the path to recovery.
Mentally you go through stages where, at times, you feel are making progress - and then all of a sudden you feel you will not be able to make it.
Big injuries do frustrate sportsmen and I cannot overemphasize the efficacy of prayer when dealing with feelings of despondency. Prayers calm the mind and help build positivity.
Injury teaches you many things - when your teammates are out there doing what they do best you have to get used to being secluded.
I thank my teammates and Hockey India for all the support they have rendered during my recovery process.