They say good things come to those who wait, and we had to wait for an eternity for the Indian hockey team to arrive at the Bengaluru International Airport. A sizeable crowd had gathered outside the airport to send off the Indian hockey team to Rio, and most of them were residents of the Sports Authority of India (SAI) hostel. There were families of the players, and a handful of journalists as well, along with a host of security personnel.
Just as I was asking the lady at the subway counter to pour some extra honey mustard in my tuna sub, a call from the colleague said, “They are here!”
As the clocked ticked past midnight, the initial enthusiasm and buzz among the gathering began to die down. However, just as I was asking the lady at the subway counter to pour some extra honey mustard in my tuna sub, a call from the colleague said, “They are here!”.
The team came out of the bus wearing a shirt which would fit perfectly in a beach at Hawaii, and the visualization was only enhanced by the garland they were gifted by the fans. It was their travel outfit, and the coach Roelant Oltmans looked more comfortable in it than most. The Dutch man even did a thumka, and seemed to be in a jovial mood. It is a long journey from the SAI hostel to the Bengaluru airport, and the coach loved it because it is not often that they get to go out together, away from the prying eyes of the Indian media. That journey from SAI to the airport had turned into a much-needed team outing and break. No wonder they had arrived late.
After posing for a team picture, with a big banner that wished them luck at Rio, the players made their way through the snake-like human-tunnel that was created by the crowd.
Most of the media folks were keen for a sound bite from Sardar Singh, ready with their “how does it feel to be stripped of captaincy” questions. But the 30-year-old proved to be elusive. He smiled for the photographers, but avoided every voice recorder pushed towards him. Just above the grin he carried on his face, there was a sense of determination in his eyes.
Recent times have been difficult for him. From being the most indispensable star of the side, alongside PR Sreejesh, he has been reduced to someone forced to reinvent himself as a striker to maintain his relevancy. Off the field controversies had brought the media attention upon him which Oltmans did not want him to endure before such a big tournament. Captaincy brings along a commitment to address the media, and it was not the right moment for him to do that. Last night, he was one of the first players to get inside the airport, far away from the cameras searching for him.
He might no longer be the orchestrator in the midfield, but he still remains an integral part of the side, and the decision to remove him from captaincy was to protect him from the glaring eyes of the media, and allow him to concentrate on his game. He will still wear the armband in rotation with a lot of other senior players on the field, as India cannot afford to risk losing Sreejesh to suspension and cardswith no alternative goalkeeper in the squad.
The man who has been seen as the replacement for Sardar Singh in the midfield by Oltmans, Manpreet Singh, had an air of calmness and assurity around him. He was not perturbed by the attention he was receiving. When asked about him stepping into the shoes of Sardar Singh, he said, “If you have seen the matches [where I played in Sardar's role], I have been doing the same thing [what Sardar does]. I have also played alongside Sardar in the midfield, so I do not think it will be difficult for me. Sardar got a new role in the forward line, and I think it can be really good for us. He has got a lot of experience, and he can use that in the opponent's D”.
Manpreet was also part of the squad which had a disappointing outing in London four years ago, but he was just 18 years old back then. He insisted that a lot has changed in the last four years. He has learnt a lot from the senior players, and now he is ready for the big stage.
Manpreet is part of the young brigade that has been coming through in the senior team. These new stars of Indian hockey ooze confidence, and have a calmness around them which belies their age. Another name, who is part of this young brigade, yet is one of the most important members of the squad—Harmanpreet Singh.
He arrived just after Manpreet, and took a deep breath before speaking to us. He might hold a calm demeanour on the outside, but he was experiencing an almost child-like thrill as he was commencing his journey to his first Olympics.
“I am thrilled. This is an excellent platform for me. I will get to learn a lot, and I will earn a lot of experience. I will do my best, and hopefully, will bring a medal for my country,” Harmanpreet said.
When asked about his calm and cool demeanour, both on the field and off it, he said, “Earlier, I used to be very aggressive. But, slowly that has changed. Now, I do not focus on mistakes. I keep my focus on the game, and that has helped me,” as he became almost inaudible from the “bharat mata ki jai” chants surrounding us. Someone had even brought what looked and sounded like a vuvuzela.
After Harmanpreet, the next in like was India's star forward SV Sunil. The 27-year-old is known for his electric pace on the counter-attacks, but he could not sneak past us. The Indian forward line has come under a bit of criticism off late, due to the lack of goals scored from open play.
Sunil was defiant though. He pointed out the results in the Champions Trophy to get his point across. He also welcomed the addition of Sardar Singh to the forward line saying, “He is a brilliantly skillful player, and I think it will help me a lot. We can form a formidable partnership”. Before leaving us for the entry gate, he hoped that India get to face Australia in the semifinal.
As the rest of the team made their way into the airport, captain PR Sreejesh was left to deliver the final statement, as he so often does in front of the goal. But first, he had to deal with the hoard of young supporters who had surrounded him for autographs and selfies. It is a tough job being the captain of the nation team, but he has handled himself brilliantly so far.
He said that he is enjoying the 'great honour' and the 'great responsibility' that this 'unexpected' captaincy has brought along. But he is not an authoritarian. In a sport like hockey, there is hardly a place for one. “In the hockey team, no one is playing under anyone. All the 11 players are captains. Everyone has their own responsibilities,” Sreejesh said.
“What medal do you want?” replied Sreejesh, as everyone broke into laughter
It was not long before Hockey India's media manager came over and reminded everyone that they are running out of time. “We would not want our captain to miss the flight,” she joked. Before leaving for departure, a fellow journalist asked Sreejesh what medal they will be aiming for at Rio. “What medal do you want?” replied Sreejesh, as everyone broke into laughter.
“Gold”, came the reply from the crowd which had gathered around us, and it was not muted. “Don't worry, we are going for gold,” said Sreejesh, before clicking few more selfies with fans and pushing his fully loaded trolley past the entry gate.
The crowd dispersed as suddenly as they had appeared. A man, who was capturing Sreejesh in a video on his mobile for the past five minutes, came up to me and asked, “Who was this guy?”. After I enlightened him, he walked away calling someone, probably boasting about how he met the Indian hockey team's captain at the airport.