Sardar Singh is the poster boy of Indian hockey today. His runs with the ball turn cheers into raptures. Lenses move left and right to capture him. Others in the team are not too far behind. SV Sunil's sprints drag the fans to the edge of their seats. VR Raghunath has turned himself into a rock in India's defence. Sandeep Singh is out of the team, but not his fans' hearts. His drag flicks are still an asset.
Sardar, Sunil, Raghunath, Sandeep and many more - Indian hockey is certainly in good hands. But those flip-flopping wrists, those legs running 5-6 km in a match, those knees enduring stop-start jars, that bent back for over 70 minutes, that craning neck - it's all flesh, blood and bone that need periods of rest to keep doing what's asked of them.
But when you are a player, coach, trainer or in any way associated with the national team, expectations come gift-wrapped. In fact, that's the nature of competitive sports. Every time you take the field, you are expected to perform, expected to win, expected to lift trophies. Tough ask; in fact, impossible. But still you've got to manage, got to stay right up there. Teams strive for that, but there's a method to it, which needs support from the federation as well as the fans in expecting what corresponds to the nature of competitive sport.
Followers and well wishers of Indian hockey must understand this when they watch a young team, minus Sardar and Raghunath, play the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup in Ipoh, Malaysia. Saving the key players from burnout and putting the youngsters through intermittent tests is how you build a team for the future. Indian men's hockey coach, Michael Nobbs, is driving the team in exactly that lane.
The criteria to rest players is based on three things: the tournament, quality of replacements and future tours/events. And India seem to have its plan clearly delineated.
Playing non-stop hockey for four months takes a lot out of players and Nobbs seems to have spaced out breathers to his key players very nicely. India could have rested Sardar and Raghunath for the FIH Hockey World League Round 2 in India, where, barring against Ireland, India had wins that came on a platter. But since it was the door to World Cup qualifiers, Nobbs rightly played a full-strength team.
The Azlan Shah Cup is India's only engagement before back-to-back series against Pakistan at home and away, and considering the magnitude of expectations attached to the matches against Pakistan, Sardar and Raghunath have been intelligently allowed time to oil their limbs and sticks by skipping the Malaysia tour.
"Important to rest our senior players as we have had an extremely hard season from the beginning of November last year until now, and our senior players are basically exhausted and require a break. We have relied heavily on them and they have played very well, but now a short break is required," Nobbs told IBNLive.com
QUALITY OF REPLACEMENTS
Hockey India League (HIL) showcased the best young talent available in India. Mandeep Singh, Malak Singh, Gurjinder Singh, Gurmail Singh, Amit Rohidas, PT Rao and Sushant Tirkey are some of names that came to the fore during the HIL - providing Nobbs quality options to try, while the stalwarts rest.
India's next big multi-team assignment is the Junior World Cup at home later this year, and the Azlan Shah Cup brought with it the best opportunity to blood young stars against the likes of Australia, Pakistan and New Zealand.
Nobbs echoed that. "Our main goal is to prepare our juniors for the World Cup in Delhi later this year. This necessitates us to field the youngest team at this tournament and to give our young players exposure against tough international teams in preparation for the Junior World Cup," the coach said.
So while India waits for hockey's golden days to return, the fans need to understand that it won't happen in the blink of an eye and necessitates a methodical approach, which is exactly how Nobbs and Hockey India are going about it.
Do you agree?