India Hockey’s Man(preet) of the Moment
From a 9-year-old jumping terraces to captain extraordinaire, Manpreet Singh's hockey journey is remarkable.
A charismatic leader. An extraordinary midfielder. A resolute team player who refuses to give up. A prankster who loves to play jokes on his team mates! A man fond of latest gadgets and playstation. A Cristiano Ronaldo fanatic. A caring son and a loving husband.
One can pick any of the above traits to describe Indian hockey captain Manpreet Singh, but it is the conjuring image of him breaking into uncontrollable sobs at the Oi Hockey Stadium in Tokyo, Japan, on the afternoon of 5 August that will go down in Indian history as the most special and memorable one!
Moments before, India had beaten former world champions Germany 5-4 in a match that saw fortunes fluctuate and had millions back home at the edge of their seats. It was a heart-stopper! After 41 years, India were bringing home a medal from the Olympics.
Manpreet, the leader of the pack, sunk to the blue pitch and let the tears roll down. He watched in almost disbelief as his teammates ran around the pitch frantically trying to understand and feel the magnitude of what they had just achieved. It seemed as if a huge burden had been lifted off Manpreet and his team's young shoulders. Something very special had been achieved on this day!
“Our journey has not finished. It has just started,” Manpreet said as he regained composure and the ever-knowing smile emerged on the 29-year-old’s face. He knew it was a very special moment in Indian hockey, and one that would change the face of hockey in India forever.
The journey, however, hasn’t been easy.
As the Olympics got postponed last year and teams world over were forced to re-think strategies, India were dealt a double blow when Manpreet and five other players tested positive in 2020. Although confined to his room at the SAI hostel in Bengaluru for weeks, the skipper knew that it was important to keep the players in good mental shape. Manpreet relied on daily video calls and words of encouragement, to keep his players motivated, all this while keeping his own difficulties in the background, that included the postponement of his wedding.
"It was definitely one of the most challenging times that I went through in my life. Spending time alone in a room without doing anything is the strangest thing I have had to do, because I am someone who enjoys the company of teammates, I need someone around me to spend time and talk to,” Manpreet had told this correspondent.
“The only pastime I had was watching some TV series or movies on OTT platforms and playing games on my iPad. However, I would say that this phase taught me the importance of mental fitness and mental health, it is not only about being physically fit. If you are mentally fit, then no COVID, no self-isolation or any such thing can harm you. I think most of those lessons helped me and the other players live comfortably inside this bio-bubble, and actually brought the team close off the field as well. It helped us immensely as we prepared for Tokyo.”
A 9-Year-Old Who Jumped Terraces to Play Hockey
Zid. A desire to excel.
For those familiar with Manpreet’s steely-yet-extremely-mischievous personality, they know it is this quintessential quality that keeps him going. Be it on field competition or the playstation games with his teammates, the diminutive midfielder only wants to win. He has the zid to excel.
It is this very quality that saw young Manpreet “forcing”his way into hockey!
One of the most endearing tales from Manpreet’s childhood is that of his mother Manjit locking him up in their village house in Mithapur, near Jalandhar, every afternoon after school. Manpreet, all of nine, wanted to play hockey much like his elder brothers but his mother would have none of it. “I was the youngest and my mother’s favourite and she did not want to see me with broken bones and face, as my brothers would often get hurt while playing,” Manpreet would say. “But then, I would never listen! I would make my way to the terrace and jump on to the terrace of the adjacent house and run off to the hockey field. I played many matches and one day, when I finally got some prize money, my mother decided to let me play!
No wonder, today his mother was the proudest when Manpreet and his team members stood on the Olympic podium. A teary-eyed Manjit told the media persons on the day, “Manpreet ne saada sab da sar uccha kar dita (He have made all of us very proud).”
Journey to Olympics
Manpreet’s transition from a happy-go-lucky village boy to Indian hockey’s MVP (Most Valuable Player), has been exceptional. After making his India debut in 2011, he slowly made his way up and is today the most accomplished player in world hockey.
He was first called to the senior national camp in 2010 under former India coach Harendra Singh. “I had just taken up as national coach and many players were injured at the time. Former defender Jugraj Singh recommended a youngster named Manpreet and we decided to test him,” says Harendra. “He did fine in the trials but we knew that with guidance, he could become one of India’s best players."
Two year later, Manpreet was selected for the 2012 London Olympics team. Considered the most complete player in modern hockey with the ability to play in any position, Manpreet quickly became an asset for the team.
Rise to Prominence
Manpreet rose to prominence in 2014 when India won the Asian Games gold in Incheon, and a silver at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games where the then 22-year-old sparkled with his performance.
Ask Manpreet about his success and the Indian hockey captain reflects, “I believe in being the best version of myself and giving my all. I do not compromise on that. Whatever I do, I do it to the best of capability with no shortcuts. I always want to evolve and improve and I think that is my strength.”
As Manpreet progressed on the international stage, he also showed signs of exemplary courage and determination. During the 2016 Azlan Shah Cup in Malaysia, Manpreet had to return home owing to his father’s sudden demise. However, a day after the funeral, Manpreet was back in Malaysia with his team. It was always country first for Manpreet, who said he received this attitude and inspiration from his mother.
Manpreet’s stature in world hockey grew with each passing year. Besides his superb skills and tactical strength, his leadership qualities too, shone forth. After a decent 2016 where India won the Champions Trophy silver medal in London and finished eighth at the Rio Olympic Games, Manpreet was hailed by many as the “future captain”. The very next year, he was handed the captain’s band. His biggest test came in the 2018 World Cup in Bhubaneswar, where finished sixth.
In the words of coach Graham Reid, “What I like the most about him is that he leads from the front. Manpreet is a class player and can produce his best game under tremendous pressure. As a captain, he provides just the kind of leadership that is needed, especially for the youngsters.”
The following year saw Manpreet pick up the FIH Player of the Year 2019 (senior men’s category), when he became the first Indian player to win the award. It was this very confidence and form that
Manpreet carried forward as he guided India to the podium finish at the Tokyo Olympics.
A Team Man And a Prankster!
Unlike his on-field serious persona, Manpreet is quite a prankster off it. Always up for a mischief, Manpreet is at the heart of all the “naughty and fun activities” within the group. Nicknamed “Korean”, he is in fact the ring leader!
His teammates reveal that the captain often jumbles and mixes up their shoes and clothes, and sometimes even hides them! At the team’s birthday celebration parties, wherein smearing cakes on each other’s faces is a tradition, no one escapes the skipper’s ‘famous smearing’. A few years ago, Manpreet had gathered the team at 5 am on the pretext of an emergency meeting. Only, that it was the morning of All Fool’s Day (1 April).
Manpreet says it is ingrained in his nature. “I love to have fun and have always been like this! I am a people’s person. Moments like these lighten up the mood and I like to keep the team calm and happy,” he says.
One is sure there will be plenty of such moments when the players unwind for the Tokyo after-party.
(The author has over 18 years of experience in sport writing and formerly worked as Deputy Sports Editor at The Asian Age. She specialises in hockey writing and has covered one Olympics, three Hockey World Cups, Asian Games and Commonwealth Games.)
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