FIH Champions Trophy 2018: En route to his 300th international appearance, Sardar Singh recalls junior debut against Pakistan
An air of expectancy hung in the cold night air at the Kempegowda International Airport at Bangalore, as the waiting media personnel strained their eyes hoping to catch the first glimpses of the bus that was ferrying the Indian team to the airport en route to the Land of Tulips.
Leading from the front is what chief coach Harendra Singh does with aplomb, and he strode in first, followed closely by fellow coaches Jugraj Singh and Chris Ciriello, Scientific Advisor, Robin Arkell, and physiotherapist, David MacDonald.
Clad in shining bright red jerseys, the players brought up the rear amidst cheers and handshakes emanating all around. The team looked relaxed and confident in spite of some last-minute changes necessitated by injuries to forwards Akashdeep Singh and Sumit. Lalit Upadhyaya and Simranjeet took the flight to Holland as able replacements for the duo and both have shown in the past that they have the skill and temperament to perform at the highest level.
Welcoming the seniors, were members of the junior state team who relished the moment and made every effort to soak up the atmosphere and get close to their heroes. One individual, in particular, was the cynosure of all eyes at the Bangalore airport last night as he is just a couple of matches shy of a landmark achievement.
The elite 300 club beckons for Sardar Singh
Affable and soft-spoken as always, the veteran from Haryana looked calm and composed even as the video cameras rolled, never allowing the smile to fade even for a moment.
Sportskeeda caught up with the celebrated half-back, Sardar Singh to have a quick tete-a-tete with the man who, on the 24th of June, will achieve the monumental milestone of having played 300 international matches.
"It is indeed a proud moment," said Sardar with a smile. "In the team meeting earlier today, the coaches and players held a celebration for me and I feel great. Every player yearns to represent the country, and I have played close to 300 matches. That really feels great."
"I give the credit to all my coaches and to my family and friends, and only because of them has my journey been possible."
Following India's opener against Pakistan, they will lock horns with Olympic Champions Argentina which will be Sardar's 300th international. After a long and eventful career, does he still remember where it all started in 2005?
"Of course", he says with a twinkle in his eye. "My debut was against Pakistan and my first international tour as a junior was also against Pakistan. Harendra Singh was my coach then."
Shared beginnings for two legends of Indian hockey
Thirteen years ago, two individuals were at a crucial stage in their careers, striving to make a mark in what was then India's national game. One of them was a former player who had failed to achieve his dreams owing to politics in sports which was prevalent then and decided to pursue coaching. The other was in his late teens attempting to cement his spot in the Indian junior side.
Both experienced early setbacks that year, but the steely and determined individuals redoubled their efforts, bounced back, and carved a niche for themselves in the annals of Indian hockey.
So much so, that following the debacle in the Commonwealth Games, every player we interviewed or spoke to on the sidelines of the preparatory camp at Bangalore said one thing in common. Irrespective of whatever happened at Gold Coast, the team will weave magic in Breda because of the advent of two individuals who have the experience, the mentoring skills, the drive, and most importantly, the desire to turn things around.
"I do not know, but there are positive vibes, for sure, since I have come back to the team, and it feels nice", says Sardar with all humility.
An acid test awaits India in Breda and a healing, and perhaps a soothing touch is just what the embattled team needs at this hour to overcome the past and go all out to combat the formidable challenge of playing a round-robin tournament against the best teams in the world.
As India head to Breda, Harendra is Sardar's coach once again. The mentor is not a struggling newbie like he was in 2005, but now an FIH certified coach and the man who won for India, the Junior World Cup just a couple of years ago. The pupil has now grown to be an accomplished veteran who has earned the respect and admiration of the entire team, who now look up the former captain to provide the winning spark.
"I did the best I could at the Azlan Shah Cup and was definitely disappointed at not being selected for the Commonwealth Games. I guided the juniors who performed quite well," says Sardar. The tone, however, is far from bitter and the 31-year-old Padma Shri awardee has the air of a man who has mellowed down with wisdom and experience. "As long as I did my best, nothing else matters".
"For the Champions Trophy, I have a dual responsibility. First, I have to perform well on the field and then also guide and inspire the youngsters to give their best."
"We have spent a few months in the training camps at Bangalore and the time has come for us to implement all that we learned on the field. There is not much difference in quality between the top six teams in the world. There are a few fine details which need to be worked out and the coaches are assisting us with the same."
A nation waits with bated breath for the opener of the Champions Trophy against Pakistan on Saturday. The next day will be no less significant, however, as India will be up against the second-best team in the world and a great son of Indian hockey will forever etch his name in the history books.