Monday, September 15, 2014

No team can be taken lightly in Asian Games, says men's hockey captain Sardar Singh

This piece was published in Sportskeeda

The Indian senior men’s hockey team will look to dish out a clinical performance at the upcoming Incheon Asian Games and thereby clinch a direct spot in the 2016 Rio Olympics. The Sardar Singh-led side had put up a superb effort in the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games, finishing runners-up to world champions Australia.
The Indian skipper touche on various issues concerning the game in an exclusive interview.

How do you assess your team’s preparations for the upcoming Incheon Asian Games?

Well, we have been putting in the hard yards at the camp focusing on certain areas, where we feel that there is a need for improvement. We are working on our finishing as merely creating scoring chances is not enough. We got to convert them and that’s what big teams are made of – making the most of what one gets. We are training hard on the long corners as well as retackling besides looking after the other facets of the game. We will have 10-12 days to gear up in Incheon and hopefully we will be ready for the challenge when the event kicks off.

The silver-medal finish at the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games was India’s first medal in any major event after the 2012 London Olympics. Your thoughts.

We are improving as a side and if you look at the World Cup we fought hard against higher ranked teams like Belgium and England. It was silly gaffes like late goals, which cost us dear in the World Cup. Daft bloomers came happening at the World Cup at crucial stages of the game, but we looked strong as a side. There was not much time gap between the World Cup and the Commonwealth Games, but we worked on our game at the pre-CWG camp and it really helped as we managed to reach the final toppling higher ranked New Zealand after being down 0-2 at one stage. We offered stiff resistance to the world champions Australia in the league phase, and of course we lost tamely to them in the final, there were many lessons to be learned.

The winners of the 2014 Asian Games book a direct berth to the 2016 Rio Olympics. Unlike the earlier Asian Games, do you think India’s job looks much easier considering Asian powerhouses Pakistan, Korea and Malaysia haven’t been in the best of form in recent times?

Not at all. In modern hockey, you can’t take any game for granted. Every team is beatable. Pakistan are the defending champions and will be determined to prove a point after failing to qualify for the World Cup for the first-time ever, while Korea as hosts will be pose a tough challenge to all teams. Malaysia also cannot be written off. Every match will be crucial and we are focused on our opening game and our first aim is to make it to the semifinals and we will take it from there.

Penalty corner conversions have always been a talked-about topic in Indian hockey. What’s your take?

We believe things are looking good in this area. Raghunath and Rupinder are doing a good job. I agree injection was a let-down at the World Cup, but we turned over a new leaf at the Commonwealth Games. We are achieving a 60-70% PC conversion rate in last few games, which shows a distinct improvement in the PC area.

Gurbaj Singh has been simply outstanding ever since he staged a comeback to the side after being dropped from the 2012 London Olympics team.

What should I say about Gurbaj? His performance has been extraordinary. He knows his job in the side very well and delivered when it mattered. Every player is trying to do his job and Gurbaj has performed outstandingly.

The Indian team is travelling to the Asian Games with only one goalkeeper PR Sreejesh. Drag-flicker Vokkaliga Raghunath is being groomed as a back-up option.

Yeah, Raghunath is having goalkeeping sessions at the New Delhi camp and Sreejesh is giving him tips all the time. He is just a back-up option, we hope his services are not needed and Sreejesh can manage all on his own.

Where do you think India stand as compared to the top teams like Australia, Germany and Netherlands?

Fitness-wise we are very much with them, but experience-wise they hold an advantage over us. We need to play these top teams on a regular basis and that way can improve our game and ranking. As far as other higher ranked sides like Belgium, England, Argentina and Korea are concerned we can beat them without really having to get overawed by them.

We need to play 40-50 games a year and Hockey India is working on that. Once we play these teams regularly, you will see more improvement in our game. Look at Australia and New Zealand or even the Netherlands and Belgium – they play each other frequently as they are geographically located close to each other.

Has Sardar Singh changed as a person with the mantle of captaincy?

Captaincy means additional responsibility; otherwise I’m the same player who wants his team to do well. I believe captaincy begins off the pitch and there must be camaraderie among players which gets reflected in on-pitch performance. There is no senior or junior in this Indian team, we always look to play as a unit and do our best for the country.

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