I want that Olympic medal badly, says Manpreet Singh
Hockey captain Manpreet Singh believes World No. 5 India have a great chance of finishing on the podium in Tokyo.
For far too long has Indian hockey promised the sky at the Olympics but crash landed on earth with a thud—be it the historic failure to make it to the 2008 Beijing edition, its wooden-spoon finish at London 2012 or the quarter-final defeat at Rio 2016. However, with a consistently high world ranking of five this time around, a medal seems to be a possibility, feels skipper Manpreet Singh, 27.
In fact, such has been Manpreet's focus on these Games that despite being in a relationship for over six years, he has kept his wedding plans on the back burner. He is planning to tie the knot after the Games "hopefully with a medal around my neck."
The hardworking midfielder spoke to mid-day on a variety of topics, ranging from India's failure at the Jakarta Asian Games, the FIH Pro League that precedes the 2020 Tokyo Olympics (July 24-August 9) and the prestigious Games itself.
Edited excerpts from the interview.
For some players it will be their first Olympics while some of you have played before. What's the mood in the Indian camp at the moment?
This will be my third Olympics as is the case for forward SV Sunil, goalkeeper PR Sreejesh and drag-flicker Rupinderpal Singh. The pressure of the Olympics is incomparable. So, as seniors, it is our job to share our experiences and mentor the youngsters. We also have another former top striker Shivendra Singh [assistant coach] and he brings along a wealth of experience. There can be numerous distractions at an Olympic Games—the international athletes, crowd, culture, food—everything is different. While it is important to soak in the experience, you have to focus on your event. As a team, we are in a happy space at the moment, and preparing for the FIH Pro League, but of course the big one is the Olympics. I want an Olympic medal badly. It's one dream that I have had since I picked up the hockey stick for the first time, at the age of 10, in school [Guru Nanak Public] in my village Mithapur [in Jalandhar, Punjab].
How do you view the FIH Pro League?
It's a good, unique concept of home and away hockey. We play the Netherlands [in January] and Belgium [February] followed by Australia. Then we play in Germany [April] and Britain [May], before hosting New Zealand [May] and heading to Argentina [June) followed by the last leg in Spain. With the world's best teams in the fray, it's a great tournament to check our consistency and also our Olympic readiness.
Going back to the 2018 Jakarta Asian Games, where a gold medal could have earned India a direct Olympic qualification, what were you thinking after India missed out?
It was like a nightmare. We were playing so well and suddenly that one game against Malaysia changed things. There was a lot of uncertainty in my mind about how and where the Olympic qualifiers would be held. Then, we hosted the World Cup so we had to turn our focus towards that. But we worked on our Jakarta mistakes, like conceding late goals, shoring up our penalty corner defence and did well at the World Cup [holding eventually champs Belgium 2-2 before losing to the Netherlands in the quarters].
Everyone celebrated when India beat Russia to qualify for the Olympics, but it was only a formality, given the gap between the two teams…
No team won by a big margin at the qualifiers. In the Pakistan [World No. 17] v Holland [World No. 3] matches, everyone thought the Dutch would win easily but the first leg ended in a draw after which Holland won the second. The qualifiers are dangerous because every team is desperate to make the Olympics and so go all out. We had decided not take Russia lightly and thank God we didn't because in the first match, the score was 4-2 and in the second, they scored inside the first 30 seconds.
India's penalty corner conversion rate is poor…
There are three things to a penalty corner— the injection, the stop and the drag flick. Initially, we had some issues with ball trapping during the first leg of our Olympic qualifier. So, we worked on that and improved. We have four PC experts—Harmanpreet [Singh], Rupinderpal [Singh], Varun Kumar and Amit Rohidas. The PC department is almost like a separate team with Chris Ciriello our PC coach planning everything to the tee. Before a match, he takes the PC team aside, deciphers the opponent and plans against them. Rupinderpal's experience has been key for us. When we toured Belgium recently, he scored some good goals in pressure situations which is a good sign. Chris feels we must make full use of our PC experts as often as possible, and for that, our forwards have to work on earning those PCs first.
Speaking of India's forwardline, they are very skillful and quick, but also equally erratic leading to poor finishing. How do we rectify this problem?
Our forwards have been inconsistent and for this coach [Graham Reid] has devised some interesting training drills. One of them is called 'scoring opportunities' where the forwards work on things like circle penetration, positioning in the D and how to evade tight man-to-man marking in the danger area. Coach Reid believes that every time our forwards enter the opposition D, we have to either (i) take a shot on goal, (ii) win a penalty corner, or (iii) score a goal. He believes that we will get at least one or two good chances in the first six minutes of every match and if we can capitalise on that and score, we can dictate the pace of the match thereafter.
How would you describe Reid's coaching style?
He likes to get into minute details. For example, if something goes wrong, he will ask you why it went wrong and get into things like your mental state at that time and how you approached the situation. Then he tries to rectify it. His strategy is simple—we should do the good things well because if we play to our strengths, even if the opponent is strong, we will still fare well. But if we play badly, we will still struggle even against an opponent who does not play well.
India have defending champions Argentina and World No. 1 Australia in their pool at the Tokyo Olympics alongside Spain, New Zealand and Japan. How tough is that?
It's the group of death because every team in our pool is tough. There is no time to settle in and we have to maintain our focus right from Game 1. People feel Japan [World No. 15] will be easy going by our past results against them but being hosts, they cannot be underestimated. Rankings don't matter at the Olympics because every team has reached there on merit. We have to approach it match by match and not think about the podium or a medal. If you are climbing a ladder, you don't think about the top straightaway but focus on every step to get there. If you don't, you'll slip. Having said that, I believe we have a good chance of winning a medal. This team is the perfect mix of youth and experience which is required to excel at the highest stage.
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