Sandeep’s goal is to see India among world’s hockey best

April 15th, 2009 - 3:42 pm ICT by IANS  

By Avishek Roy
New Delhi, April 15 (IANS) India’s hockey captain Sandeep Singh has put the Azlan Shah Cup victory Sunday in a proper perspective by saying his team has a fair distance to go before being hailed as one of the top international sides.

Speaking on his return from Ipoh, Malaysia, where India won the Azlan Shah Cup after 13 years, Sandeep showed his equanimity by refusing to go ga-ga over the victory. He realises that his team only made a modest beginning in their quest to be recognised as a top-flight international side.

Sandeep said the immediate goal of the team is to make it to the Champions Trophy finals and for that India have to be world number six by the year-end. For that, he feels, the team must perform consistently and be regularly among the top six at the World Cup and the Olympics. His next big challenge is at the Asia Cup in Malaysia next month. He hoped Malaysia would prove lucky again.

“The team will take confidence from the Ipoh victory and we will have to live up to the expectations at the Asia Cup which is our next challenge as the competition will be tough there what with South Korea, Pakistan, Malaysia and China looking good to beat any team on their day. Of course, we will have to be at our best at the New Delhi Commonwealth Games next year,” Sandeep told IANS in an interview.

Three years ago Sandeep was not sure whether he would ever be on his feet again, let alone play hockey, after a stray bullet fired by accident hit his spine while he was travelling in a train to join the 2006 world cup camp. He recovered fast and was back on the turf. Yet, he was not seen to be good enough to be back in the India team. All sorts of stories abounded about his fitness. The national selectors dragged their feet in calling the drag-flicker back.

It took a regime change for Sandeep to be back in the India side. The regime of K.P.S. Gill and coach Joaquim Carvalho ended with the appointment of an ad hoc committee to run the game in the country and the new set of selectors did not waste time in picking him for the Azlan Shah Cup exactly a year ago. He was the top-scorer of the tournament and India finished runners-up to Argentina.

Soon the reins of the team were handed over to Sandeep and last week-end, he was there at Ipoh kissing the cup after India beat hosts Malaysia 3-1 in the final convincingly. He was again the top-scorer with six goals and also the Player of the Tournament. A couple of months ago, he led the side that finished runners-up at the Punjab Gold Cup, losing to the Netherlands in the final.

Despite his elevation as captain, Sandeep’s feet are firmly planted on the ground. He dismissed the debate over the inclusion of seniors like Dilip Tirkey, Prabhjot Singh and Ignace Tirkey, paying tributes to their skills and ability.

Sandeep feels the present lot of players has the potential to go far.

“The Azlan Shah victory was a team effort. The way we bounced back after drawing the first match with Egypt showed the team’s mental strength.”

Sandeep said the team desperately wanted to win the tournament and every player was determined.

“It’s a great achievement considering that we have won it after 13 years and an international title after some years.”

India’s weakness of conceding late goals came back to haunt them against Egypt and New Zealand in this tourney too. But the players pulled up their socks to reach the final with a win over arch-rivals Pakistan in the semi-finals.

“There are many areas where we need to work. We have chalked out those critical areas. The team has a balanced look with a fair mix of youth and experience. Importantly, we are all willing to learn from our mistakes.”

Sandeep says Azlan Shah has turned out to be a happy hunting ground for him.

“Azlan Shah has been a favourite tournament for me. I am happy that I could make a difference to the team, but it could not have been possible without the support of the coach and my teammates.”

(Avishek Roy can be contacted at avishek.r@ians.in)

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