Sardar Singh have retired from the game after being dropped from the national set-up, but there was a time they were incomplete without him. The former captain of the Indian national hockey team has been involved and responsible for some of the most memorable chapters of Indian hockey, and it was during a time when the team wasn’t as polished, when it would show sparks only to stumble at the final hurdle. Also Read - Virender Sehwag, Sardar Singh And Deepa Malik in National Sports Awards Selection Panel
In such times, Sardar was responsible for Indian hockey writing one of its most fabled moments, winning as gold medal at the Incheon Asian Games in 2014. Sardar, who last played during India’s unsuccessful title defence at the 2018 Asian Games, fondly remembers its previous edition, where India were on a roll beating the best teams en route to winning the title after 16 long years. Also Read - Will Always Regret Not Being Able to Win an Olympic Medal But The Current India Hockey Team Can: Sardar Singh
“It was our first gold in 16 years and is one of the happiest memories of my career,” Sardar told the Indian Express. “It was a very proud moment for me as the captain. It was particularly significant as there were a few youngsters in the team playing their first Asian Games and they had a taste of victory. It was the result of complete unity of purpose in our batch. Everyone’s thinking was the same.” Also Read - Sachin Tendulkar to Virat Kohli, Sardar Singh to Abhinav Bindra: India's Sporting Community Pays Tribute to 'Rare Role Model' Balbir Singh Sr.
Under the tutelage of former coach Terry Walsh and Roelant Oltmans serving as the high performance manager, the look and approach of the team changed drastically. Recalling the build-up to the Games, Sardar recalled how the players gave it their all during a practice camp held in New Delhi, because of which the team entered the tournament brimming with confidence.
“It was peak summer in North India and the stadium had big stands on every side so there was very little air circulation. It was a 40-day camp and several friendships developed there. But the training sessions were so intense that we often felt that we would collapse,” he remembered. “When Walsh joined us, we were in Bhopal. He decided to lay special emphasis on fitness. We had to complete 400m sprints in groups within a particular time, and used to be left gasping at the end. The coach also made us swim at the Talkatora Stadium pool.
“We had days earmarked for a particular aspect. For example, one full session was dedicated to the slap shot. We had seven or eight training sessions at the venue and acclimatised properly. We were full of confidence when the tournament began.”
After blanking Sri Lanka and Oman 8-0 and 7-0 respectively, India lost 1-2 to Pakistan in round robin stage, but regrouped to beat China 2-0 and hosts South Korea 1-0. Beating the home team is always tough with the crowd support and everything but Sardar explained what how India prepared for South Korea and emerged victorious, albeit narrowly.
“Playing against the home country is always tough, with the whole crowd behind them,” Sardar reminisced. “Marginal decisions also usually went in their favour as there were no video referrals there. We conceded a penalty corner when I knew the ball had struck my hand and not the foot. But we were determined to keep our shape and discipline and avoid any cards. Our focus was rewarded as we kept the Koreans at bay and Akashdeep (Singh) scored the only goal of the match.”
And in the final awaited arch-rivals Pakistan, who shared a superior record against India back in the day. But the defeat earlier in the tournament notwithstanding, and despite Pakistan’s players constant abuses throughout the match, India drew 1-1 and stormed to the title with a 4-2 win in penalties.
“We were not emotional or nervous, but calm. We knew we had done our homework and were expected to be in the final. The preparation was like what we had before any other game,” Sardar explained.
“Our plan was to play with energy from the start and execute our strategy, so even when Pakistan took an early lead (through Muhammad Rizwan senior in the third minute), we didn’t panic. I told my players that there was a lot of time left and we needed to play with discipline and stick to the plan.
“Pakistani fans are always very abusive and it was no different in this match. But we knew it would happen and were determined not to react.”