FIH Champions Trophy 2018: 'Present team is one of the best ever, the presence of seniors vital' says veteran SV Sunil
The stalwart from Sowmarpet shows scant signs of slowing down in spite of having graced the international stage for over a decade now. If anything, the electrifying runs seem to have got even speedier and the fleet-footed moves and deft touches in the striking circle are wily enough to outfox the most compact of defenses.
Most players he started off with have either hung up their boots or have been unable to survive the rigors of international hockey.
At Gold Coast, the oldest member of India's fearsome forward-line looked by far the liveliest and his very presence on the pitch seemed to spur his team on. His scintillating runs against Pakistan and Malaysia were just as spectacular as his late strike against Wales which enabled his team to earn full points with a minute remaining on the clock.
As India prepares for a far more formidable challenge against four of the best teams in the world, (and old rivals Pakistan), the Arjuna awardee is perhaps the most qualified member of the squad to assess what went wrong in the Commonwealth Games and what the team's prospects are at Breda.
Sporstkeeda caught up with SV Sunil at the SAI complex in Bangalore where the Indians are undergoing an intense preparatory session under the watchful eye of coach Harendra Singh.
"We were overconfident against New Zealand in semis, working to shun complacency"
Sportskeeda: As one of the most senior members of the side, how would you sum up India's performance in the Commonwealth Games?
SV Sunil: We win together and lose together. I think we played quite well. The only match which did not go well was the semifinal match against New Zealand. I feel we took the Black Sticks lightly as we had beaten them easily in the Four-Nations Tournament (in January). I felt that we were a bit complacent against them.
Whenever we are a little too confident, it always goes against us just as it did against Malaysia in the quarterfinal of the Hockey World League last year. We lost to them as well. (India lost 2-3 to Malaysia in June 2017.)
Good teams should never fall prey to complacency and we are working towards that end. Harendra Sir has made it very clear to us not to take any teams or matches lightly. We paid the price for committing minor errors in the semifinal. The target is very clear and that is to win at any cost.
We lost out on a medal and we still feel the pain of not finishing on the podium. We should not repeat the same mistakes in the bigger tournaments ahead which are the Champions Trophy, Asian Games, and World Cup. We are working towards that aim in this camp and I feel all the boys are putting in their best.
Senior players have made a comeback. The coaching staff and Hockey India needs to be commended for bringing the senior players back into the fold. The presence of senior players in big tournaments is extremely vital.
Sportskeeda: In the semifinals against New Zealand, we failed to score despite over 30 circle penetrations. The ball struck the upright twice. A few decisions went against us. Were we unlucky or do you feel we did badly?
SV Sunil: Yes, in fact, it was my shot that struck the post first and Akashdeep's shot also did. After my shot struck the post, I told myself, maybe this is just not our day. Mandeep also missed a sitter. The ball simply refused to go into the net. The luck factor did go against us.
Having said that, we cannot pin the blame on luck, as we too have a responsibility on the pitch to make things happen. Once we conceded two quick goals, it was always going to be difficult to find our way back.
We did learn some vital lessons from the Commonwealth Games tournament. In a big match like a semifinal, managing to force over 30 circle penetrations, earn 9 PCs and fire 9 shots on goal is a huge achievement. Yet, we lost and I am sure all of us have learned a lot from the match.
Sportskeeda: Why do you think the forwards were unable to click like they have done in the past? Will things be better in the Champions Trophy?
SV Sunil: It is true that a couple of forwards were a bit off-color in the Commonwealth Games but we are all one team and we supported them through a lean phase. Every player needs to give one-hundred percent as this is a team game.
We also held a meeting in which it was stated that a player can be off-color for one or two matches but beyond that, he needs support and motivation.
We will click as we have played together numerous times in the past. Ramandeep is back now. Mandeep, Sumit, Akashdeep, and Dilpreet are all extremely good. Ultimately, I feel it's up to us, the players. If we have the will to perform well, we should be able to.
The present bunch (selected for the Champions Trophy) is the best ever team that we have had in a very long time. Now, it's up to us to perform and deliver results.
"Youngsters like Dilpreet and Vivek need to be given opportunities to perform"
Sportskeeda: As a senior forward, how would you assess Dilpreet's performance given his young age?
SV Sunil: The Commonwealth Games was the first major tournament that he (Dilpreet) played in. We should have realistic expectations from young players like Dilpreet and Vivek Sagar. Whatever they were capable of, they delivered well, and that is precisely the reason they have been given a chance to perform again in the Champions Trophy.
Now, they have to perform well, and depending on their performance, it will be determined if they are good enough to be selected for the tournaments following the Champions Trophy. Whoever performs, only they will be retained in the team and that is absolutely right. A nonperforming player can be given a couple of chances, but if he still cannot perform, he has no right to be in the team.
The same holds good for me as well, and for every player, irrespective of whether he is a junior or a senior.
Sportskeeda: There was a debate as to whether youngsters like Vivek Sagar were blooded in too soon. What is your opinion?
SV Sunil: Vivek Sagar had performed really well on the tour to New Zealand. The Four-Nations was Vivek's first stint with the seniors, and the CWG was the first time he played a major tournament.
It is obvious that he was very keen to do well. When you try too hard and want to excel badly, sometimes you end up making a few mistakes. The same thing could have happened to me as well if I was trying hard to make a mark.
When you are apprehensive of making mistakes and try too hard not to, sometimes that is just what you end up doing. Vivek is very hardworking and has great potential to be a good midfielder. He was given a chance and I support that decision totally.
There was absolutely no feeling in the team that he should not have been given a chance. The point is, whenever we do not perform well, a lot of issues spring up. We are one team and always stand by each other.
"Harendra has brought positive energy into the team"
Sportskeeda: You will be locking horns with the top four teams in the world after a new coach has just taken over. What is the aim for the Champions Trophy?
SV Sunil: Harendra Singh held a meeting on the very first day after he took over as coach. He set a very clear target for us and that is to win, irrespective of whichever tournament we play in. He also told us that results should not in any way be related to the fact that he has just joined.
"I have just joined, but all of you are playing together for a very long time," he told us. He made it very clear to us that we would be the ones performing on the field and that he can only guide us.
I really appreciated what he said. He stressed the fact that coaches may change, but the players are the ones who will continue on the field. He created a lot of positive energy within the team. We will be playing the World Cup at home and the Asian Games before that. The Champions Trophy is an opportunity for us to see where we stand on the world stage.