One does not necessarily have to be born in this land to be awestruck at the speed and skill of the men up front who have weaved magic with their sticks over the years and left the hockey world spellbound. Indian hockey has for long been associated with the kind of charming wizardry which practitioners like Dhanraj Pillai perfected to enthral audiences the world over.
A young lad from Punjab too harboured dreams of doing much the same at the highest level and his aspirations were fueled by his uncle who was a hockey coach in addition to being a teacher. His uncle's fervent wish was for a member of the family to represent the country and bring home an Olympic or World Cup medal in the game of hockey.
Part of the dream has already been realized as the youngster is now a 25-year-old and has established himself as one of India's premier forwards. The other part, perhaps a trifle more arduous and elusive, is a shared wish which millions of Indians hope will be fulfilled at the end of the year as India play the World Cup at home.
Prior to that, however, the Indian team is headed to the Netherlands in an effort to ascertain how they match up with the very best teams in the world.
Will Ramandeep Singh be India's lucky charm at Breda?
India will take on Australia, Belgium, Argentina, Holland, and Pakistan in the Champions Trophy in what will be their biggest test so far this year.
India were the only team which beat eventual gold-medalists Argentina in the Rio Olympics. The Indians also beat World Champions Australia in a Test series in Raipur in 2015. In January this year, the Men in Blue beat Belgium in the Four-Nations tournament in New Zealand.
The wins against these sides have been few and far between, and therefore, assume significance. Against the Dutch too, India failed to win in a major tournament since the Hockey World League in 2015. Yet, that is just what they did as part of a European tour last year.
What is the common factor in the above statistics?
Of course, all the countries which India beat are part of the Champions Trophy. More significant, however, is the fact that Ramandeep Singh has been a member of every winning squad mentioned above in spite of having been in and out of the team on quite a few occasions.
Against the Dutch, at Raipur in 2015, he scored a brilliant brace, and a couple of years later earned his 100th international cap as India beat the Netherlands in their backyard. Of course, he was there when India hammered Pakistan in the Hockey World League Semifinal and in the Asia Cup last year.
Yet, the journey has not always been as smooth.
Ramandeep was rested for the Champions Trophy in 2016, sidelined due to injury at times, and missed the Azlan Shah Cup last year. He was not picked for the Hockey World League Finals in Bhubaneswar last year, and in spite of a good showing at the Azlan Shah Cup earlier this year where he mentored a junior team which performed creditably, he failed to find a place in the squad that travelled to Gold Coast.
How does he keep himself motivated with such frequent ups and downs?
"When we are out there on the pitch donning India colours, it is our duty to perform and give more than our hundred per cent. The inspiration and confidence one gets after wearing the India team jersey is phenomenal. Whenever I am given a chance, I do the very best, I can and I will always continue to do the same."
Before the Indian team departed for the Netherlands, Sportskeeda caught up with Ramandeep Singh as he explained to us the nuances of what it takes to be a world-class forward and why he feels that the most senior strikers (Sunil, Akashdeep, Mandeep) and himself, coalesce seamlessly to form a fearsome foursome.
"Sunil, Akashdeep, Mandeep, and I combine extremely well"
Sportskeeda: Apart from the goals that you have scored, you have been outstanding with your assists which have helped your teammates score. How do manage to deliver passes that are so accurate time and again?
Ramandeep Singh: Communication between the strikers is extremely important. Once I receive the ball, my fellow strikers should know where I will deliver my pass and whether it will be to the right or to the left. Just before I deliver the pass, their position should be just ahead of the defender so they can collect the ball and then advance.
Sunil, Akashdeep, and Mandeep know from beforehand how and where I will deliver the pass. We have been playing together for over five years now and we have a very high level of understanding between ourselves. The way the forwards combine is extremely important.
Such understanding does not develop overnight. It comes after years of playing together and only then does it prove to be effective. They (Sunil, Akashdeep, and Mandeep) know how I deliver a forehand pass and how different it will be if the pass is delivered off the backhand.
Junior players cannot anticipate the same and it takes time to learn. In the Commonwealth Games, the problem was that the youngsters were unable to combine well with the senior strikers.
I know Dilpreet for a very long time now as he was my junior in the Maharaja Ranjit Singh Academy. I have seen Dilpreet develop over the years. He is extremely skillful but needs to learn how to combine well with the seniors. He also needs to develop a greater understanding with the midfielders and the same goes for Sumit as well.
Dilpreet and Sumit are now learning how to combine well with the senior strikers. We are now making one of them practice with two seniors (such as Dilpreet with Sunil and myself) so they learn to combine well.
Sunil, Akashdeep, Mandeep, and I have totally different and contrasting qualities and styles. These different qualities need to be amalgamated and harnessed in such a manner so as to benefit the team.
SK: You last played in the Azlan Shah Cup with a young team. In spite of being inexperienced, you had close matches with teams like Argentina, England, and Australia who fielded their best teams. If a junior team could do so well, surely the seniors can do even better?
Ramandeep Singh: The Azlan Shah Cup is an invitational tournament. Tournaments like the Commonwealth Games and Champions Trophy have a far greater level of importance. The pressure of playing in a tournament like the Azlan Shah Cup is lesser when compared to the CWG, Champions Trophy, or Asian Games.
We explained to the juniors that when we first joined the team, playing the first tournament was tough and that we too had gone through the same phase. We motivated the players and told them to display all their skills on the field without any fear. The players responded well to what we said and performed creditably. We managed to build a new team pretty fast. Secondly, the juniors are able to perform without any pressure, otherwise too (unlike the seniors) and that acts as an advantage as they can play fearlessly against the top teams. Sardar paaji and I sat with the young players for long periods and explained the formations to them. We also spent a lot of time teaching them how to combine with us.
Also, for us to perform well, we had to teach them how to combine with us. You mentioned the England game, and I remember we had earned nine PC's, so we enjoyed the upper hand in the match. Personally, it was a great experience for me as it taught me how to teach and motivate the juniors and to combine well with them.
SK: How well prepared is the team for the Champions Trophy? As far as goalscoring is concerned, will the focus be on field goals or PCs?
Ramandeep: Harendra Sir wants us to focus on our basic skills and correct basic mistakes. I want to overcome my weaknesses to perform as well I can for the team. We will be at our best when we take the field for the Champions Trophy and implement all that we learned at the camp.
The best teams in the world have a good defensive structure and scoring a field goal is not always easy. For that matter, even the top teams like Germany and Belgium are scoring more off PCs than field goals. Most teams in the world are reliant on PCs now.
When the angle is too narrow to take a shot, players often force PCs. When a team earns a PC, it has a 50 per cent chance of scoring a goal. We have Harmanpreet, Rupinder (who will not be at Breda), Amit, and Varun who can all score off PCs.
We have also focussed a lot on how to rectify our mistakes and be more effective in the striking circle. At the end of the day, when we are not able to convert PC's we need to have the ability to score off field goals and vice versa. A good team should be able to achieve both.