Ranchi Rhinos have played like a well-oiled unit in the Hero Hockey India League, with their performance prompting many to consider them as the only team who can seriously challenge the might of Delhi Waveriders for the HIL crown, although Delhi’s clinical 5-1 win over them in their own backyard on Friday may convince a few to think otherwise.
And one youngster who has grabbed the maximum eyeballs for the Rhinos’ superlative showing in the league has been 17-year-old Mandeep Singh. The bubbly Indian junior player was an unknown commodity in the Indian hockey circles before the start of the HIL, but has now emerged as a familiar face for hockey buffs with his impressive goal-poaching skills which saw him score six goals, including two in one crucial tie against Sahara Uttar Pradesh Wizards in Lucknow.
“It was a great away win for us. UP Wizards are a good side. We beat them in Ranchi and were more confident going into our away match. I’m really happy that I could score two goals for my side,” Mandeep recalls that game in an exclusive interview to Sportskeeda.
The Jalandhar boy, who is the second highest goal scorer behind India’s ace drag-flicker Sandeep Singh, credits his good showing in the league to Rhinos’ intense two-week pre-tournament camp. “The camp allowed me to adjust to the different playing styles of our foreign players. We have players from Australia, Netherlands, Germany, South Africa and New Zealand besides our Spanish goalkeeper, and it was a nice opportunity to get our passing and combination right. The camp really benefited me to be in the comfort zone.”
A product of Jalandhar-based Surjit Hockey Academy, Mandeep is adjusting well to his right-out position despite the fact that he is a natural centre-forward. “I always play as a centre-forward for Surjit Hockey Stadium or for the Indian junior team. But in the HIL, our coach Gregg Clark asked me to play in the right-out position. Initially, I was not sure whether I would be comfortable in that position, but I’m more than happy with the way I have performed in the new position and enjoying it now,” he says with a tinge of excitement.
The learning from the league has been immense for Mandeep and the slew of international coaches is surely a boon for the Indian players. “Indian youngsters can richly benefit from these world-class coaches. I’m learning a lot from our coach Gregg Clark – he tells me to indulge in crosses or hit-ins from the flanks as the Indian players like to get inside the striking circle and take a crack at the opposition goalmouth,” the gaunt youngster reveals.
Having captain and a versatile playmaker Moritz Fuertse also ensures that there is never any shortage of learning for Mandeep. “I feel proud to play alongside a world-class player like Moritz Fuertse. He is always ready to help with his inputs on the game. He often talks about the importance of putting the ball in the opponent’s D with precision; the need for executing accurate crosses or hit-ins,” says the youngster, effusive in his praise for the captain.
The talented striker has no doubts that Ranchi Rhinos are firm favourites to win the Hockey India League. “We are a well balanced side and will win the league. We will have home support as the semifinals and the final will be played in Ranchi,” he says with optimism.
Mandeep was one of the stars of the Indian junior team which finished runners-up in the 2nd Sultan of Johor Cup in Malaysia. The Punjab da puttar scored three goals in the tournament, including two in India’s stunning 3-1 win over eventual champions Germany in the league phase. “We played really well to beat Germany in the league stage although we lost to them in the final. I remember scoring two quick goals in the first ten minutes of play. I was awarded Man of the Match in that match,” he recalls with a great deal of satisfaction.
HIL is a massive opportunity for the Indian youngsters to impress the selectors and the ONGC employee is elated to have lived up to his expectations. So, has he started thinking about a senior Indian team call-up? Pat comes a matured answer. “It’s an honour to wear the senior national jersey but I’m willing to wait for my opportunity and not think too much about earning a berth. I’ve to work on a few areas, like sharpening my acumen to play and succeed in the senior team.”
Modern hockey is all about attaining high levels of fitness. Is he doing anything to improve his scrawny frame? “I’m fully fit and can play for full 70 minutes. Of course, I need to be more robust so that I can overpower opposition players in tackles and during run of play,” he quips.
Mandeep’s father is a property dealer based in Jalandhar. Hockey runs in the Singh ménage. “My brother used to play hockey and I now play the sport with the same passion,” he signs off.