Has Mandeep Singh finally arrived?
It hurt Mandeep Singh alright. Hours after India’s Sultan Azlan Shah Cup dreams crumbled under a devastating 0-1 loss to hosts Malaysia, sleep was not to be had. The team's heart ached as they threw away a promising start to the tourney – losing two of their final three group games to finish one step behind the coveted spot for the final.
“We stayed up till 1 that day. We honestly couldn’t sleep,” said the young Mandeep as the pain of that loss still showed in his eyes. “We stayed up till 1 and analysed the whole game against Malaysia. We were disappointed. But we were determined as well. We were not going to go empty handed from Malaysia.”
That determination showed in a couple of days’ time as India played one of the best games ever witnessed in recent years – dismantling New Zealand 4-0 to take home the bronze.
A coming of age?
Mandeep’s development over the past four years has been an absolute delight to watch. The young forward entered the limelight in the 2013 Hockey India League and literally barged his way into the national set up the same year.
His first three years in the senior team were indifferent at times, but it was all about building the foundations and developing his all-round game.
And Roelant Oltmans clearly understands that this a long term process.
“You can see the improvement in him. You can see he has matured. He is looking more comfortable in the setup and beginning to believe that he belongs out there.
“And it doesn’t just come out like that overnight. You have to grind it out. It’s a long process,” quips the Dutchman.
His youthful exuberance and delightful play on the field earned him a ticket to the 2014 World Cup where he began on a positive note – finding the back of the net in the opener against Belgium.But like the rest of the team, he fizzled out.
Coming back from an injury in 2014, people thought he had finally turned a corner with his performances in the Champions League last year. However, in Rio, at another major event, the youngster again fizzled out. India’s whole frontline, in fact, could be said to have gone AWOL at the Olympics. Mandeep finished without troubling the scorers and had another period of self-realisation to go through.
The 2016 Junior World Cup proved to be another pivotal tournament in his career as the young lad – a product of Surjit Hockey Academy – produced three vital goals en route to India’s eventual triumph. This included a crucial second in the match against Australia.
And that tournament seems to have got his rhythm back. Often criticised for his inability to finish when he was younger, this year he just can’t miss. And he is hungry for more as he senses that he is starting to mature.
“The difference (between the senior and junior levels) is a lot. But the Junior World Cup was a great confidence booster. I have a lot of experience under my belt now since the last World Cup. But I want to keep improving, so I go around and keep getting feedback about my own game from my seniors.”
And in his own words, he has calmed down a lot. “I am not that anxious anymore and neither am I too frustrated.”
An injury to his finger in 2014 just after the World Cup meant that he missed the Commonwealth and Asian Games. But he feels that, somehow and somewhere, that has done him a lot of good.
“The injury and the time it took to recover – it helped get my balance right, psychologically. It’s a hard time missing out on big events but that’s where your mental toughness is tested. After the injury, I have had to work really hard to get my fitness back and now I feel like I am getting back to my best again.”
His goalscoring prowess might not have had a direct impact on the fortunes of the team, but has certainly made life for Oltmans on the sidelines much easier. And it is no wonder that he is a wanted man whenever journalists turn up to meet the Indian Hockey Team.
With goals like the one he scored against Japan, expectations are going to rise exponentially. However, we have to keep in mind that the forward is still 22 years old and still has a long and arduous road ahead.
He has a fan in Oltmans and his showing in recent games has certainly vindicated the coach’s trust. We have seen a few glimpses of magic from the stick of Mandeep. Now it’s time he scripts a true fairytale in the years to come.