As the eight-team Asia Cup hockey tournament begins in Ipoh, Malaysia today, there’s one man on whom rests Indian hockey’s ever-increasing burden of expectation — Sardar Singh.
The sturdy skipper leading a bunch of young and inexperienced set of players carries the all-important responsibility of not just doing well in the tournament, but of in fact ensuring his team wins the continental competition as it is also India’s final chance to qualifying for next year’s World Cup to be played in the Netherlands.
If India stumble in Ipoh, there is every chance that the 1975 World Champions could face the ignominy of missing out on a World Cup berth for the first time since the tournament’s inception in 1971.
Coincidentally, Sardar and his able drag flicker Vokaliga Raghunath are the only two players to have been part of a similar humiliation half a decade ago, when the Indian team failed to qualify for the Olympics (Beijing 2008) for the first time in 84 years.
This time though Sardar is confident his team wont let him down. “I don’t want to think about the past. Nothing can be done about that. We have to look at the present. In fact, so sharp is our current focus, that we are not even looking ahead towards the semi-final stage of this tournament, leave alone the thought of next year’s World Cup. Our focus right now is tomorrow’s match against Oman. We’ll plan ahead only after looking at our performance tomorrow,” Sardar told MiD DAY from Ipoh yesterday.
India are placed in Pool B alongside South Korea, Bangladesh and Oman while Pakistan, Malaysia, Japan and Chinese-Taipei comprise Pool A in the August 24-September 1 event. After today’s clash with Oman, India play South Korea (Aug 26) and Bangladesh (Aug 28). The top two teams from either pool will play the semi-finals.
In what could turn out to be a favourable situation for India, South Korea recently qualified for the World Cup, which means the Asia Cup is not a do-or-die event for them, so they need not go all out. Besides, if South Korea and India reach the final here, India can afford to lose and still make it to the World Cup.
Sardar however, is unfazed by the South Korea factor. “I don’t think Korea will take it easy. Instead, they could end up playing more freely and do well,” said the 27-year-old midfielder.
When asked about the prospects of this relatively inexperienced Indian team winning the tournament, the Deputy Superintendent of Haryana Police spoke with authority:
“This is a young and inexperienced side, but there is no lacking in confidence and skill. Youngsters like Ramandeep Singh and Malak Singh (drafted in due to injuries to senior forwards Danish Mujtaba, Akashdeep Singh, Gurwinder Singh Chandi, SV Sunil) are doing very well during the high intensity training and drills. Coach (Roelant) Oltmans has drawn up some plans for us. We are very confident of winning this tournament.”
Sardar however, has been under the weather over the last few days and had to be hospitalised in Malaysia recently. “I had high fever and a throat problem but now I’m much better,” he said.
The team management though does not want to take any chances and announced yesterday that the central midfielder will be rested for today’s opening encounter against Oman. India have won the Asia Cup twice before — 2003 and 2007 — but never has this tournament been as important to the nation as it is this time.