Paris 2024: Team man to the core, Manpreet ready for fourth Olympic bow

India's men's hockey veteran all praise for Paddy Upton's role in final stage of their preparations

Manpreet Singh egging his boys on ahead of Tokyo 2020 (courtesy: Hockey India)
Manpreet Singh egging his boys on ahead of Tokyo 2020 (courtesy: Hockey India)

Gautam Bhattacharyya

Manpreet Singh, captain of the Indian hockey team which ended a 41-year medal drought at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics (actually held in 2021 thanks to Covid), is one who has been there, done that in his sport. Now set for his fourth Games in Paris along with teammate and veteran goalie P.R. Sreejesh, the pivot of the side, however, wears his seniority rather lightly on his sleeves.   

Both will be playing under the captaincy of Harmanpreet Singh this time, a rock in their defence and their main drag-flicker, and senior pro Manpreet feels the leadership issue is of no consequence. ‘’Harman has been our captain for a while and it’s not an issue at all. For me, the team comes first and our goal is to go to for a medal again. I can’t achieve anything by myself,’’ the 32-year-old said in an interview with National Herald.

Speaking from Bengaluru where the team is fine-tuning preparations at the Sports Authority of India (SAI) complex, the midfield general revealed that they are leaving nothing to chance for the gruelling times ahead, with Hockey India roping in the services of celebrated high-performance coach Paddy Upton to look at the psychological aspect of the team. The South African is no stranger to the Indian sporting fraternity, being part of the support staff for Gary Kirsten when India won the 2011 ICC World Cup, and then being engaged in the IPL with a number of franchises.    

‘’Paddy has been a great help, making us understand the power of positivity. He is also guiding the bunch on how to handle pressure and move on quickly from any mistakes on the pitch as it’s such a fast game,’’ Manpreet noted.  

It was as a 20-year-old that he first wore the blue shirt, and has been part of India’s campaigns through London, Rio and Tokyo — a journey which has taught Manpreet to take the rough with the smooth in his stride. Add to this three Asian Games, which included two gold medals in 2014 and 2022 (which helped India seal a berth for Paris) and an Asia Cup gold medal in 2017 apart from the Champions Trophy and a host of other international caps.

"In the Olympics, you cannot underestimate any team and have to give your best. We have to take it match by match, without thinking too far ahead,’’ is Manpreet's prescription. Clubbed in pool B with New Zealand, Argentina, Ireland, Belgium and Australia, India need to finish among the top four to qualify for the quarter-finals. The semi-finals and final follow, with the format needing a third-place play-off between the losing semi-finalists to decide the bronze medallist.

After the long tenure of Graham Reid, Manpreet & co. are under a new coach, the South African Craig Fulton. Asked for a peek into the team’s current philosophy, the ever-smiling Manpreet said the name of the game in modern hockey is to strengthen the defence.

‘’The plan is to strengthen defence as you know in hockey, one can score in 10 seconds. We are good with counters and need to express ourselves also… yes, mistakes will happen, but we have to cover for each other,’’ said Manpreet, named Asian Junior Player of the Year in 2014.

How has the time flown in the Paris Olympics cycle, given it the three-year gap between Tokyo and Paris instead of four? ‘’The love and affection we got from the people on our return from Tokyo was amazing. The visibility of hockey has certainly increased again, and more kids want to pick up the stick. The onus is on us to maintain it with a strong performance this time,’’ the man from Jalandhar reflected.

Asked how special it is to prepare for a fourth Olympics, the self-effacing Manpreet was quick to point out that a player each from Germany and Belgium are set for their fifth Games. ‘The journey has not been easy as there is fierce competition to make our national team. One has to make the right choices about food, spend more time in the gym to try and stay injury-free. I have also received a great deal of help from my teammates to be able to continue,’’ he said.

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