It’s no coincidence that captain Manpreet Singh’s emergence is intertwined with India’s rebirth in Tokyo.
Manpreet Singh was too young to comprehend the complexities. But he recalls waking up in the middle of the night after hearing a tap on the door and seeing his father standing outside, expressionless and stoic, with his mother and two brothers hesitantly opening it.
Manpreet’s father worked as a carpenter in Dubai. “I’m not sure what occurred, but he came back one night, completely unannounced, wearing the tough, dusty clothing he’d worn to work.
Life had taken a catastrophic turn in his life. His father, who was the family’s sole breadwinner, became depressed. “However, we didn’t have the money to take him to a good hospital.
It was difficult to watch him in that state. “It was excruciatingly painful,” Manpreet says.
He was partly insulated from the challenges that followed as the youngest of three siblings. But that night ingrained in him a feeling of accountability. “You reflect on life events that have shaped you as a person,” Manpreet explains. “That was the turning point for me.”
His voice trembles, and those wicked eyes well up with tears. A brilliant smile returns to his face a few minutes later. “Not just myself, but everyone has made a sacrifice to get this far.” So it’s all right,” Manpreet adds, his demeanour befitting a man who takes his achievements, disappointments, and hardships in stride.
Manpreet is an oddity in certain ways.
Unlike the captains of India’s cricket and football teams, his fame has yet to extend outside his sport. Virat Kohli or Sunil Chhetri are idolised by millions, pursued by marketers, and considered superstars in their respective sports. Why just cricketers or footballers? Some of India’s hockey stars have also achieved popularity outside of the sport, spanning generations.
However, the guy who guided India to the Olympic podium after 41 years keeps a suspiciously low profile, maybe emblematic of a system where having individual voices and identities is frowned upon.
The affable and quick-witted 29-year-old is circumspect and cautious when speaking on official platforms, spouting off clichés and sticking to the script rather than delving deeply. It’s the polar opposite of his personality on the field, where he’s impulsive, quick, and courageous. And because he doesn’t score goals in every game, rarely does anything flamboyant, isn’t a hypnotising dribbler like Dhanraj Pillay, or has the vision and simplicity of Sardar Singh, Manpreet rarely gets the recognition he deserves.
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It’s no surprise, though, that Manpreet’s rise is intertwined with the storey of Indian hockey’s comeback.
When ‘Korean’ debuted in 2011, Indian hockey was still striving to recover from its lowest point — the inability to qualify for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
In retrospect, 2011 was also the start of India’s 10-year programme, as it is now known. It was in a constant state of upheaval. However, as coaches came and left, play continued.
By putting fitness at the centre of their concept, Michael Nobbs and David John redefined the definition of a typical Indian player. Terry Walsh supplied structure, Roelant Oltmans added stability, Sjoerd Marijne taught them to think on their feet and think independently, and Harendra Singh – who gave Manpreet his first break after advise from veteran drag-flicker Jugraj Singh – gave them the freedom on the field.
The Hockey India League (HIL) developed the young Indian players technically stronger and courageous in the middle of frequent churning in the national squad. Manpreet and PR Sreejesh, one of the best Indian goalkeepers of all time, are the only contemporary players to have gone through and survived all of this.
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Manpreet’s originality, on the other hand, stems from the fact that he defies categorization. He is the culmination of all the small moves accomplished over the last decade
His quickness was one of the reasons he was dubbed “Korean” early in his career, a moniker that has stuck with him ever since. By participating in the HIL and working with a half-dozen coaches, he was able to add new elements to his game, allowing him to become a more versatile player.
Manpreet is a strong ball player, which makes him an important centre-back because most of the moves go via this position. Because of his fast thinking, he is the go-to guy for transitioning from defence to attack and vice versa. He has a high level of game intelligence, which allows him to successfully communicate on the field and coordinate his teammates’ movements. He scores a goal every now and then, serves as a stopper in attacking penalty corners, and can even serve as a first-rusher in defensive penalty corners.
It hasn’t always been an easy ride. Manpreet’s leadership qualities have been scrutinised, particularly after a spate of poor results in 2018 — at the Commonwealth Games, Asian Games, and World Cup
Those were the months of true crisis, and a podium result at the Olympics seemed like a distant fantasy at the time. However, in mid-2019, India’s new coach, Graham Reid, was appointed. Aside from his tactical brilliance, Reid provided a much-needed feeling of serenity to a tumultuous bunch.
India appeared to be ready for the Olympics by the year 2020. However, the extra year after the Olympics were postponed due to the epidemic allowed them to focus on an intangible value: “togetherness,” as Manpreet puts it. “If you want to do anything as a team, I believe it is the most crucial thing.”
With age, Manpreet has gained wisdom. The tales of split locker rooms have become part of Indian hockey legend. What had always been whispered within hockey circles was brought to light by Nobbs, who wrote about the team’s ‘clique’ mentality in his London Games report. Manpreet’s performance in the 2012 Olympics was reportedly hampered by cliques among the playing group, according to Nobbs.
So, during the lockdown at the Sports Authority of India Bangalore Centre, the entire squad took the time to get to know one other better. “The goal was to gain a better understanding of each other’s backgrounds and the types of sacrifices their families had to make in order for them to go this far.” “This greatly aided team bonding,” Manpreet says.
This isn’t to say the vibe was one of all-brothers-in-arms. But there was camaraderie, and it was clear at the Olympics that all players had one other’s backs
Manpreet studied the journeys of previous generations. Defenders Amit Rohidas and Birendra Lakra, who come from unremarkable villages in Odisha, have motivated him. “They didn’t have access to electricity, and their families suffered as a result.
He was inspired by Vivek Sagar Prasad’s fortitude in overcoming a life-threatening injury to become India’s second-youngest player ever. Prasad, who plays in the same position as Manpreet, is awestruck by the way his skipper keeps the team together, especially during difficult times.
However, there was one player’s experience that Manpreet could immediately identify to: SV Sunil. In 2009, while in Malaysia for the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup, the fast forward lost his father. Manpreet was competing in the same tournament seven years later when he learned of his father’s death.
“I returned home to be with my family.” My mother, on the other hand, demanded that I join the team once all of the ceremonies were done. It’s difficult to forget how supportive the entire crew was during those days. As a result, it was my job to accompany them to a crucial competition.
His colleagues characterise him as ‘progressive’ and ‘open-minded,’ qualities that Manpreet attributes to his mother, Manjeet. He says, “She has played a big role in making me who I am today.”