For some of India’s top stars, 2023 was the year when they had to pause, reflect and reboot. In some cases, to recover from injuries; in a few others, to rediscover lost form. All in the hope that when the big day comes, they’ll be ready and recharged for the challenge
In Odisha at the World Cup in January, after India lost the shootout against New Zealand to fall short of the quarterfinals, Manpreet Singh was on his knees, staring down at the turf in disbelief. It wasn’t supposed to end this way, for the team that won bronze at Tokyo Olympics. It was, to put it mildly, a disaster to go out that early.
In Hangzhou at the Asian Games in October, when the final was deadlocked 0-0 against Japan with five minutes left to go in the first half, India were getting a bit desperate for the opening goal. As a rebound fell to him at the edge of the circle, Manpreet Singh unleashed a powerful reverse flick that flew into the roof of the net. He was on his knees again. Only this time, his teammates were mobbing him as he celebrated a rare and significant goal. India would go on to win the match 5-1.
“Kya bolein yaar, I score only rarely,” Manpreet tells with a big smile. “When the ball came to me, I was only thinking of hitting the target. The coach tells me when I get into the circle, ‘you don’t shoot enough. So when you get a chance, go for it, your reverse hit is brilliant.’ That’s all I had in mind. And it flew well off my stick.”
Indeed, 2023 was one of two halves for the Indian men’s hockey team. At a home World Cup, a chance to end the 48-year-old wait for a medal went begging. But as the year drew to a close, they clinched the title at the Asian Champions Trophy and the gold medal at Hangzhou Asian Games, which also sealed their place at the Paris Olympics.
And Manpreet personified that arc better than any.
The 2012 Olympic Games campaign was a nadir in Indian hockey as they lost all six matches to finish last, but for a 20-year-old Manpreet it was personally harrowing too. There were reports of cliques in the squad and of Manpreet being targeted. So when Manpreet says the disappointment of the 2023 World Cup was alongside that of London 2012 for him, it says a whole lot.
“We were all quite disappointed. In the match against New Zealand, we didn’t play well at all. In a crucial match, we were not able to do our best. We will forever remember that we didn’t step up that day,” the 31-year-old says.
But if 2012 was a campaign of chaos, 2023 hurt because there was a general sentiment that this team was really good and capable of a podium finish. “Handling the pressure of crucial matches, dealing with the presence of home crowd… that match against NZ, we should have done better, because there was confidence in us from the nation. We were confident too, but it will always remain hurtful that we couldn’t deliver,” Manpreet says.
Siddharth Pandey, hockey commentator and FIH Level 2 certified coach is someone who has kept a close eye on this Indian team in recent years as a broadcaster. “What happened with Manpreet at the World Cup was in line with what happened with the rest of the team, where multiple things went wrong,” Pandey tells this daily. “Crucially, Hardik Singh’s injury had a huge impact on the team and Manpreet lost a crucial supporting act in the midfield. Then there was the pressure of playing in front of family and thousands of fans. We are usually good away from home these days.”
For someone who has achieved quite a lot in Indian hockey, as a player and leader, the World Cup disaster could potentially have been seen as a stopping point. But Manpreet went back to the drawing board. After a few Pro League matches, the team got a break and Manpreet was driven to bounce back. As Rohit Sharma said after the men’s cricket team’s home World Cup heartbreak, it wasn’t easy to move on but athletes have to find a way.
“Spending time with the family definitely helped,” Manpreet, a doting father to a girl now, says. “Like Rohit said about how even going out and meeting people was difficult, such a disappointment is huge. We athletes put in all our efforts for years and years, for that one big day in a tournament. When you don’t succeed, you feel despondent. It takes a while to heal. But then you have to start thinking… what next? We can only change what happens in the future.”
It started with fitness. Though he was on a break, Manpreet told his family that he’d not be indulging in his diet. One of the fittest athletes there is, Manpreet went about focussing on staying in the best shape possible. “I definitely had to reboot. And when we returned to the camp, the senior players got together and said ‘Whatever has happened, we can’t change. But we can learn. The mistakes we made at the World Cup shouldn’t be repeated’.”
Adding a new dimension
While he is no longer the team captain, Manpreet – unsurprisingly – doesn’t add much weightage to it, insisting that the likes of himself and PR Sreejesh are there to share the burden with Harmanpreet Singh. Pandey goes to the extent of saying that being a leader without being the captain has liberated him.
“He’s a father now, he’s in a good space personally. The Manpreet of 6-7 years ago was still very disciplined on the pitch every time he played, but was quite outgoing,” Pandey says, adding he saw a version of Manpreet at ACT who was enjoying his game, and took up attacking responsibilities that weren’t quite his forte earlier.
New head coach Craig Fulton came in and initially had Manpreet playing in the defence. But it wasn’t new to him, he started his national journey as a defender on the left side. “His fundamentals were sensational, that’s why we had the nickname ‘Korean’ for him,” Pandey recalls. “Then he transitioned into being a wonderful central defensive midfielder across coaches. And now he has added a dimension that not a lot of people thought he had, which is shining as a central attacking midfielder.”
Graham Reid’s era saw Manpreet evolve into one of the best guarding midfielders in the game, who was terrific at ball retrieval and starting transitions by receiving the ball into space. Fulton, after the initial shift, brought him back to midfield and gave him the freedom to go forward too. It was evident in Chennai, where Manpreet was player of the match in two of India’s matches, driving masterfully through the midfield.
“He can now be the extra man creating overloads in the circle as he was when he scored the opening goal in the Asian Games final. You can see the number of aerials he receives at the baseline, making runs from deep. Under Reid, he was a ball retriever and he was the guard responsible for counter control, and was brilliant at it. Now Fulton has entrusted something new with him, and he is delivering. He is now a 3-dimensional hockey player, and to do that at 31 is quite impressive, and to add to that he is supremely fit,” Pandey says.
At the Asian Games, one of the standout features of India’s play was assists for players at the second post and the number of 1-2 passes they made to open up scoring opportunities. Fulton’s philosophy is built on control and a defend-to-win mantra but within that, he is enabling the attackers to dovetail with each other, something the Manpreet-Hardik-Vivek axis is crucial for.
“I found joy in going forward, I have a lot of freedom. My understanding has gotten better with other players, when Hardik goes forward I know I have to focus on counter control. And vice versa. Craig also believes that whenever we get the chance we have to use our Indian skills. Our ability to beat players is one of the best in the world, so whenever we can, we must use that ‘Indian masala’,” he adds with a smile.
As Indian hockey looks ahead to 2024, Manpreet might not be the captain, but he is leading the way by evolving and setting high benchmarks that youngsters must aspire to. As Pandey says, “For him to have started his journey at a damaging event like London 2012 to now be months away from a fourth Olympics appearance, that’s an incredible career graph. Whatever happens in Paris, Manpreet goes down as an all-time great.”
What 2023 taught, what 2024 means
For someone who has seen many highs and lows in the constantly dramatic world of Indian hockey, Manpreet – and the rest of the Indian team – got a rude reality check at the Odisha World Cup. The defeat against New Zealand was a tough pill to swallow and outgoing coach Graham Reid called for the need to have a mental conditioning coach.
In came Paddy Upton, to join new head coach Craig Fulton, who has plenty of experience working with Indian athletes. While Manpreet was aware of the need to reboot personally, there was an acknowledgment that India needed help in handling high-pressure situations.
“When Paddy came in, the conversations were about focussing on the controllables. You can’t control the weather, you can’t control the fans turning up at a venue… don’t worry about the result, focus on the steps to get there. To remain stable ahead of a big match, when the pressure is on,” Manpreet says, about moving on from the World Cup heartbreak.
Unlike in 2018, the qualification for Paris 2024 has been taken care of early and the Indian men’s team can now fully focus on fine-tuning their game. It would involve using the Pro League matches to full effect. Their dominance at the Asian level is not in doubt still, but there are bigger targets to check off for Fulton, Harmanpreet, Manpreet, and Co. Lessons must be learned from Odisha 2023 as they look ahead.
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