NEW DELHI, July 10: He carries the weight of the nation’s expectations quite effortlessly. With close to 150 goals from 170-plus matches, Sandeep Singh is one of the best drag-flick exponents in world hockey today. It is natural that the 26-year-old is expected to score off penalty corners each time he takes up position near the striking circle.
“I know that my team expects a great deal from me and I love the challenge,” he said just before the Indian team embarked on its month-long acclimatisation tour of France and Spain on its way to compete in the London Olympic Games. “And yes, it gave me goosebumps feeling the 1964 gold medal that the legendary Gurbux Singh got for us to see.”
As if the pressure of expectation is not enough in itself, Sandeep has got the Olympic rings tattooed on his right forearm to remind him of the goal each time he takes up his stance near the striking circle to execute a drag-flick. “I have worked out something special to tackle the Europeans when they charge out to check my penalty-corner flicks or drives,” he said.
The young man, who traces his roots to Shahbad in Haryana, was not even born when India won the last of its eight hockey gold medals in Olympic Games back in 1980. Yet, he is aware of what success at the world level can mean since his elder brother Bikramjit Singh was part of the Indian squad that won the FIH Junior Men’s World Cup in 2001.
Inspired by that, Sandeep took to hockey professionally. Before long, he finished as top goal scorer in the 2004 junior men’s Asia Cup that India won for the first time in five attempts. That it came after beating Pakistan in Karachi made it more special. He made his international debut in the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup.
He won a place in the team that took part in the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens and there has been no looking back. Sandeep has demonstrated his mettle in the drag-flick and earned himself the sobriquet of ‘Flicker Singh’. He clocks a speed of over 145kmph and has a healthy conversion rate.
During the 2012 Olympic qualifiers in Delhi, he scored 16 goals, including five with a hat-trick in the final against France. It was an emotional moment for him to receive the highest-goal-scorer trophy from triple Olympic gold medallist Balbir Singh Sr., whose record-setting five goals in the won India the gold in the Olympic Games at Helsinki in 1952. It was a decisive step away from erasing the bitter memories of his tempestuous relationship with coach Joachim Carvalho that saw him miss the 2008 Olympic qualifier in Chile.
It also helped him overcome memories of a freak mishap kept him out of the team that took part in the 2006 FIH World Cup in Germany. Travelling in a Shatabdi Express from Ambala to Delhi in August 2006, he was hit by a bullet from a Railway Protection Force official’s pistol that went off accidentally.
That he was nearly paralysed and confined to the wheel chair for close to a year is a distant memory now as he returned to establish himself in the team again. What’s more, as captain, he helped India lift the Azlan Shah Cup in 2009 after 13 years as he topped the goal scorers list. He drew strength from his wife, former India hockey player Harjinder Kaur and they were blessed with a son recently.
The good thing about Sandeep is that he is aware of his limitations as a defender and is ready to learn from former India captain Dilip Tirkey, who was acknowledged among the world’s best defenders. “Coaches Michael Nobbs and Dilip Tirkey have helped me a great deal and I have undergone special training to improve my speed and footwork,” he says.
Helping India back in the race, Sandeep has set his sights on helping India end a 32-year Olympic hockey medal drought. He believes the current team is fitter than its predecessors and appreciates coach Michael Nobbs and physiologist David John’s role in raising the team's physical fitness.
When you watch shirt No. 4 line up for the drag-flick during the Olympic Games in London, you can be sure that Sandeep Singh will steal a glance at the tattoo of the Olympic rings on his forearm before settling down. You will know then that this man is dealing more with his own expectations than with that of the nation’s hockey lovers. (Horizon Sports)