Giving 'em the stick!

Sandeep Singh has emerged as Indias main weapon, firing in penalty corners at crucial moments

Giving 'em the stick!

From being the apple of India’s eye to a disgruntled star, and back again as the country’s chief goal-scoring weapon, Sandeep Singh has travelled a path that a lot of talented sportspersons trudge upon – either by choice or by pure coincidence.

Rarely has someone generated such buzz in recent times as the Haryana cop, easily one of the most popular hockey players in the country.

A measure of his popularity was on view at the FIH Olympic Qualifiers in New Delhi with the fans going gaga every time India earned a penalty corner. Chants of Sandeep-Sandeep rent the air at the Major Dhyan Chand National stadium as the 25-year-old drag-flicker lined up behind the ‘D’ to fire his stinging missiles that has left all the opposition goalkeepers dead for pace, accuracy and potency.

Heartening indeed has been the way in which the strapping defender has soaked up the pressure and delivered the goods. Appearing completely oblivious to everything around him, Sandeep has been in a zone of his own, pumping in 11 goals so far -- ten of them from penalty corners and one off a penalty stroke -- to emerge as the tournament’s highest scorer by a mile.

“I am really happy to be playing well for India and scoring goals,” said Sandeep. “Drag-flicking is one of our strengths and I am happy to be leading from the front. It is a very important asset of modern hockey, and we have a good depth with (VR) Raghunath and Rupinder (Pal Singh). Obviously everyone looks up to me, and I am just happy that I am able to deliver the goods whenever it matters.”

Looking a bundle of joy and having freed his mind from all distractions, Sandeep’s new-found confidence and determination has added an extra edge to the Indian team that is loaded with many talented strikers. However, his presence in the current squad seemed in question following his antics that seemed to test the patience of coach Michael Nobbs, who has high regards for the player.

“He is absolutely world class,” Nobbs remarked on his first day at the National camp in Bangalore when the entire set of 90 probables was presented to him. “If India needs to go to the London Olympics, we need him to fire. I’ve not met him but I’ve watched him play and he is a natural genius. Very few players have the skill sets that he has, but I’ve heard he is a bit moody.”

While reservations rose about Nobbs assessment, his first acid test came when Sandeep, in the company of few others, quit the National camp for a couple of days in order to attend a promotional event of the World Series Hockey. After being asked to induct Sandeep back, Nobbs faced another headache when a month later the defender left the camp once again along with friend Sardar Singh, citing family issues. It appeared that it would be the end of the road for the talented duo; the issue once again highlighting Sandeep’s reluctance to train hard that had put him on a much-publicised war path with former coach Joaquim Carvalho.

However, to everyone’s surprise, Nobbs recalled the errant duo, stressing that while they had been on the wrong road for a while, they’ll be given one last chance to redeem themselves as they are too talented to be cast aside.

“See, in a team you will have some who walk the line and some who cross the line,” Nobbs had said then. “It is the duty of the coach to get everyone in line. I realise the value Sandeep brings to the team, and hopefully he understands this.”

Looking far from fit seven months ago, Sandeep -- the only other Olympian in the current Indian squad apart from Ignace Tirkey – has looked fitter, sharper and hungrier. It is as if he wants to prove a point, relishing every moment of his presence on the pitch and repaying the coach’s faith in him with stellar shows in the last week.

Having added more variations to his vicious drag-flicks, Sandeep has also put in a lot of work in his defensive work  -- his biggest weakness. Although still far from perfect, the fiery cop has shown signs of improvement and is enjoying the confidence of Nobbs who has asked him to worry less about defence and focus more on his strength – short corners. “The big change that I see in Sandeep now is the confidence,” said drag-flicking coach Jugraj Singh who has been working with the team for more than a year now.

“I feel the concentration level has improved a lot. He now completely believes he is India’s premier drag-flicker. We’ve been working a lot with him and the big difference now is his willingness to learn.  

“He’s training very hard. The spark and spunk is there which everyone can see. Confidence is very important for an athlete and he has loads of it now,” added the former drag-flicker. Looking at Sandeep’s performance so far, one just cannot dispute Jugraj, as the player scripts more and more goals under his name.

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