Going into the Asia Cup in 2017, the Indian hockey team faced a few challenges.
The former giants had not won the tournament in 10 years and to make matters worse, found themselves without the services of skipper PR Sreejesh, who was recuperating from surgery.
With veteran midfield general Sardar Singh entering the twilight of his playing career, the period called for a new, and youthful, infusion of energy into the captain’s role and Manpreet Singh was the candidate best suited for the job, having skippered through his junior career.
The 27-year-old began his captaincy on the best possible note, leading the Indian hockey team to Asia Cup gold.
The expectations may weigh some down but Manpreet Singh has not felt the pressure. “It has been an enjoyable experience for me so far,” he stated in an exclusive chat with the Olympic Channel.
“We had a great start with the Asia Cup, where I had Sardar to help me discuss strategies and team plans. That is how it has been largely, the seniors like Sreejesh, Rupinder (Pal Singh), SV Sunil and Ramandeep (Singh) have not let me feel the pressure. They are always there for me.”
The support system in the Indian hockey team allows him to play with a lot of freedom, which allows him to cover almost every inch of the astroturf, and Manpreet Singh is someone who likes to lead by example.
He is often the first rusher while defending a penalty corner, a job that needs immense concentration to anticipate a shot, and bravery, to block it.
The skipper is quite modest of his abilities though. “No first rusher wants to let the ball past him and I feel Amit Rohidas is better than me,” believed the Mithapur native.
“We usually plan for him to guard the left side of the goal, it allows the keeper to focus on covering the right. It makes the job easier for us.”
The Ronaldo effect
Another thing that makes it easier for Manpreet Singh is learning from football great Cristiano Ronaldo.
For most, it’s the Portuguese striker’s skills, the insane annual goal numbers and gravity-defying headers are what define him. For a keen observer like Manpreet Singh, his off-the-ball activities catch the eye.
“I like the fact that he never gives up. Even if his team is losing, you can see him constantly trying to egg the team on and inspire them to victory,” the Indian hockey skipper said.
Manpreet Singh, who wears the number seven jersey like the Portuguese footballer and another one of his favourite players, David Beckham, wants to be the one to lift the team on the field.
“I am the sort of person who likes to motivate youngsters when they are going through poor form or for some reason, are not able to do as well,” he stated. “Ultimately, hockey is a team game and everyone’s contribution is equally important.”
Preparing for Tokyo
It’s why the Indian hockey team had built great momentum in the new year, recording wins over the Netherlands, Belgium and Australia in their debut FIH Pro League campaign. And their plan to peak in time for the Tokyo Olympics was motoring along well.
They were undergoing a training camp at the Sports Authority of India (SAI) centre in Bengaluru when the lockdown was announced in India due to COVID-19 and news that the Tokyo Olympics had been pushed by a year came a few days later.
The Indian hockey team are currently doing all they can to deal with the testing times. “We cannot venture out or do our normal routines, so the team does feel exhausted at times,” Manpreet Singh candidly noted.
However, they are still very much preparing for the biggest test. “There is a whole year to go and we choose to look at it as an opportunity to perfect ourselves. Extra-preparedness is always a good thing, especially for the Olympics,” he said.
“We are keenly reviewing videos of our opponents and discussing possible strategies,” he said.
“An entire nation is depending on us for a medal and we are doing everything possible to make it happen.”