Questions outnumber answers as Sardar Singh announces an abrupt end to a glorious career
Stability has rarely been the forte of the eight-time Olympic gold medalists and former giants of world hockey. On the contrary, the Indians continue to astound the world by reaching dizzying heights of glory when few expect them to - only to come crashing down soon after, much to the chagrin of millions of their fans.
Manpreet and co. who were the second-ranked team in the Commonwealth Games at Gold Coast, quite shockingly, failed to finish on the podium, while Sreejesh's boys who were ranked second-to-last in the Champions Trophy at Breda stunned their critics by winning silver.
A win at the Asian Games would have catapulted India to an unprecedented fourth position in the FIH World Rankings but the perennial phenomenon of being consistently inconsistent continues unabated.
In the midst of the preparatory camp for the Champions Trophy, coach Harendra Singh and the Indian players stressed repeatedly, and in unequivocal terms, that the inclusion of one man had bolstered the mood in the camp, and would prove to be decisive for the team's fortunes.
While Ramandeep Singh was returning to shore up the forward line which was found wanting at Gold Coast, former captain Sardar Singh was making a grand comeback to strengthen the midfield, and more importantly, to lift the sagging spirits of his teammates who adored and revered him in equal measure.
What could possibly have changed so dramatically in the space of just over three months (and two tournaments), for the veteran to hang up his boots just when he was beginning to chart a new course for himself and the team?
Why Sardar's move defies logic
When Sportskeeda met up with Sardar Singh at the Bangalore airport, as the team were heading to Breda to take part in the Champions Trophy, he looked just as excited as a youngster about to embark on his first international tour. In reality, however, the stalwart was then a couple of matches away from a historic 300th international.
The veteran was all smiles as the cameras clicked away but failed to conceal a deep sense of dismay at having been dropped for the Commonwealth Games.
"It is every athlete's dream to play the World Cup and the Olympic Games but they are held only once every four years. I was naturally disappointed to be dropped for the Commonwealth Games. I did my best at the Azlan Shah Cup, and I am happy to be back in the team."
At Breda, the 32-year-old performed better than he had done last year and held the midfield together admirably with guile, backed up by over 13 years of international experience.
After beating Pakistan in the opener, the Indians celebrated Sardar's 300th international with a victory against Olympic champions Argentina and silenced their critics by holding Belgium and Holland en route to a well-deserved silver.
What's more, it was the Indians who held all the aces against World Champions Australia in the final and, in the opinion of many, should have finished the match off in regular time and returned home as the title holders.
Nonetheless, the show at Breda was touted as a success of the new order, and Sardar's return seemed to herald a new dawn for Indian hockey. The Indians rose in the rankings post the Champions Trophy and were expected to breeze through at Jakarta.
In a chat with Sportskeeda ahead of the Asian Games, Analytical Coach Chris Ciriello had stressed that the Indians would not be complacent at the Asian Games and were well aware of the threat that Pakistan and South Korea could pose.
The Koreans did scare the Indians a bit at the beginning of the second half of their pool match, just as Pakistan played fast and attacking hockey in the bronze-medal encounter.
Yet, the Indians beat both Korea and Pakistan but fell to Malaysia in the all-important semifinal thereby failing to achieve their primary objective of winning gold and earning a ticket to Tokyo.
The Champions Trophy silver-medalists who had crossed swords so very convincingly with the elite of world hockey had to settle for a bronze medal at the Asian level.
All said and done, it was just one bad day at the office for the Indians but such is the cruel reality of sports that the loss has jeopardized the plans of the Indian camp who will now have to go through the long grind of Olympic qualification next year.
While it was expected that a few heads may roll post the debacle, Sardar's omission from the list of campers is bewildering - especially, since he was recalled to rejuvenate his teammates and rekindle the winning spark.
On the other hand, if Sardar had conveyed his decision to opt out before the list was announced to make way for young blood - well, it then makes little sense at such a crucial juncture, and more so, since that was precisely what Sjoerd Marijne had intended to do in the first place!
The exit of Sardar - back to square one?
Very few in the Indian hockey fraternity adopted a neutral stand when it came to the question of Sardar Singh. While many believed that the Azlan Shah Cup would be Sardar's swansong, India's failure to finish on the podium at Gold Coast led to an upheaval which opened the doors for the veteran yet again.
Sjoerd Marijne's emphasis on fast legs and his long-term vision of building a young team for the future came in for scathing criticism after India's fourth-place finish at Gold Coast, and his omission of Sardar, in particular, irked many.
The inclusion of Sardar post the Gold Coast tournament was deemed to be the prime reason behind the new-found stability of the Indian outfit.
What is most worrying for the team is that, if indeed, Sardar was the fulcrum and the feel-good factor of the team, then his sudden exit will do little to lift the morale of a side that is reeling from the reverse of the Asian Games debacle.
Big change before World Cup
It is amply clear that Sardar's decision to step down was precipitated by events that transpired during the Asian Games, and the timing of the move may well upset the plans of the Indian think tank with just over two months to go before the start of the World Cup.
At Jakarta, the Indian defence and the midfield had little to do initially as the men up-front ran amok in the opposition striking circle and plundered goals by the dozen in the pool matches.
What were Sardar Singh's shortcomings (if any) during the Asian Games which could have led to the end of the road for the Haryana veteran?
In the semifinal against Malaysia, the Indian midfield seemed out of sorts as Muhammad Firhan, Hasan Azuan, Fitri Saari, Faizal Saari, and Tajuddin Tengku tore in from the flanks much to the chagrin of the hapless defenders.
Sardar, however, was not the only player manning the midfield, and the Malaysians displayed superb individual skill and exceptional speed which could well have rattled the best of sides.
The Haryana veteran was shown a yellow card a minute before the end of the third quarter in the semifinal while Surender Kumar too was sent to the sin bin a couple of minutes later. The Indians were down to nine men, and under relentless pressure in the opening minutes of the final quarter with the defence stretched to the absolute limits.
Malaysia's equalizer, however, came at the death when all the Indian players were on the pitch.
The only other major blemish that comes to mind is that Sardar missed a vital penalty in the shootout against Australia at Breda and did not step up (or was not chosen) to take one in the semifinal at Jakarta.
In the overall context, if the Indian camp genuinely believed that Sardar's return had helped to inject a level of calmness in midfield and stability in the team, it is quite puzzling as to why the Arjuna and Padma Shree awardee was not included in the list of campers for the Asian Champions Trophy,
Amit Rohidas who has played every major tournament this year also fails to find a place in the 25 which means that Varun Kumar is the only Indian player to have been unsinged by the chopping and changing thus far in this calendar year.
Yet, no matter what the future brings, it is time to bid farewell to a modern legend of Indian hockey. A silver in the Champions Trophy at Breda, a gold at Incheon at the Asian Games in 2014, and a couple of silvers in the Commonwealth Games of 2010 and 2014, simply does not encapsulate the sheer genius of the champion half-back from Haryana.
Harendra Singh was Sardar's coach when he made his junior debut against Pakistan in 2006 and it is perhaps fitting that the stalwart also played his final tournament under the tutelage of his beloved mentor.