As a kid, all Manpreet Singh wanted to do was experience the joy his two elder brothers felt while playing hockey and winning prizes for the school team, but his family were not as keen on him hitting the pitch.
His mother did not want her youngest child to break any bones and one of his brothers even went to the extent of locking him in a room. However, much like he does with tightly-knit opposition defences these days, he found a way out.
Manpreet Singh escaped the four walls and reached the field where his brother was practising. Only the coach’s permission to allow him to learn the game saved him from a beating that day and it set him off on a path that would see him lead the Indian hockey team to the Olympics one day.
Prizes change perceptions
Manpreet Singh Pawar, who was born in Mithapur in Punjab, found early inspiration from former Indian hockey captain and Padma Shri Pargat Singh, who also hailed from the same village.
The desire to emulate him combined with his elder brothers’ prowess drove the then 13-year-old to continue playing the sport despite his family’s disapproval but that was to change soon.
The youngster’s team won 500 rupees each as a reward for winning a local tournament and it was enough to convince his mother to allow her son to continue playing and she even enrolled him at the Surjit Hockey Academy in Jalandhar
Once there, Manpreet Singh swiftly brought his talent to the fore and his ability and passing range with the ball saw him make his debut for the Indian hockey junior team in 2011.
Marking his territory
The junior debut quickly translated into playing with the senior Indian hockey team and remarkably, the then 20-year-old travelled to London as part of the squad for the 2012 Olympics.
The team endured a difficult campaign on its return to the Olympic fold but the experience held Manpreet Singh in good stead. Within a year, he was captaining the Indian hockey side in the junior hockey world cup and later led them to the Sultan of Johor Cup title
The year 2014 proved to be a breakthrough for Manpreet Singh as he was named ‘junior player of the year’ by the Asian Hockey Federation and went on to win a gold medal and a silver respectively in the Asian Games and Commonwealth Games with the senior team.
It firmly established him as an integral part of the Indian hockey team as he delivered consistent performances in midfield. It was bound to get him some reward and a knee injury to PR Sreejesh saw a new avenue open up for Manpreet Singh.
Leading the Indian team
Having already led junior sides before, the current Indian men’s hockey team captain was one of the natural choices to lead the side when ex-skipper and veteran custodian Sreejesh was forced to go under the knife in 2017.
He was initially tried as captain by Hockey India in an invitational tournament but his biggest test came at the 2017 Asia Cup. The pressure on the Indian hockey team was immense, with the former heavyweights not having won the event in 10 years.
Moreover, then men’s team coach Sjoerd Marijne decided to shift veteran Sardar Singh to defence and hand the responsibility of running the midfield to Manpreet Singh. In a way, it saw the baton being passed to the next generation and allowed the youngster to showcase his ability to rise to the occasion.
“As a midfielder, my role was to feed the ball to the forwards. There was no pressure on me at the Asia Cup. I don't think about the switch as one having any negative connotation, neither does Sardar. The switch was really beneficial to the team, which is why we did it,” he had told Firstpost at the time.
With his natural attacking instincts and ability to spot almost non-existent gaps, the Indian hockey captain sprayed multiple balls forward and drove the Indian hockey team to the Asia Cup title to flag off his captaincy in style.
Perfect conduit between seniors and juniors
With the arrival of new head coach Graham Reid, the Indian hockey team has clearly shifted its focus to blooding more youngsters and Manpreet Singh’s friendly nature sees him easily blend in.
“The senior players are easy to talk to and the transition from the junior team becomes easier when someone like Manpreet Singh welcomes you and makes you feel like a part of the team,” Vivek Prasad Prasad, one of the newer entrants to the Indian hockey side had told the Olympic Channel.
The team qualified for the Tokyo Olympics with a comfortable win over Russia last year and began its maiden FIH Pro League campaign in fine fashion, beating Belgium, the Netherlands and Australia while only suffering two close losses in six matches.
While such strong form would have naturally seen high expectations from the Indian hockey team at the Olympic Games, the one-year delay means that they would have to continue coming up with these performances.
But team captain Manpreet Singh, the first Indian to win the FIH Player of the Year awards, has faith in his boys. "One of the things that I like about youngsters in their hunger to improve," he would tell the Olympic Channel in an interview.
"I think that makes my job a bit easy... I know the guys look up to me and want to learn from me.
"Secondly, I try to ensure that the guys are motivated enough even when they are having an off day. It's sports, and you are bound to have a bad day. I try to help the guys in dealing with such situations."
Luckily for them, they have a calm and able leader and a determined individual in Manpreet Singh who will no doubt motivate them to keep doing better and strive to return Indian hockey to glory.