Modern hockey is played at breakneck speed. Another example of it was the bronze medal playoff match between India and Germany at this year’s Tokyo Olympics, which turned out to be full-back Rupinder Pal Singh’s final match. In a high-scoring match, with quick momentum swings and pulsating end-to-end action, India defeated Germany 5-4 to win their first Olympic medal in 41 years. The country is still punch-drunk on the exploits of their hockey heroes.
But after more than 10 years of playing international hockey, the one thing Rupinder has learnt is not to linger. “Move on,” is his mantra. Less than two months after achieving the biggest honour of his career, the 30-year-old decided to call it quits.
“It is a bit disappointing for me, leaving after such a high with the team,” Rupinder tells Mint during a telephonic interview. “But in a way I’m happy and grateful that I was part of the team that won the Olympic medal. We are really lucky that we got this chance.”
The tall defender has been one of the mainstays in the Indian hockey team since he made his debut in 2010. He won 223 caps for India, scoring 119 goals. During India’s Tokyo Olympics campaign, Rupinder was India’s second-highest scorer with four goals and even struck once as India overturned a 1-3 deficit against Germany to win the bronze medal.
“We were leading in the last few minutes,” he recalls the frantic closing minutes of that match. “There was definitely that pressure that we have to win a bronze medal, because we were so close to the finish line and didn’t want to ruin the moment. We didn’t want to waste that chance. In the end, we had to be brave and as a team we defended really well.”
The pressure of history was pressing down on the men in blue. India, once the undisputable champions and the most decorated team in Olympic hockey, with 11 medals, including eight golds before Tokyo, had lost their way in the 1980s as hockey made the move from field to AstroTurf.
They had last won a medal, a bronze, at the 1980 Moscow games, 10 years before Rupinder was born. But the player, born in Faridkot, Punjab, had grown up on stories of hockey grandeur. His father, elder brother, and cousins were all hockey players. It was only natural that he followed suit.
Even though Rupinder is now known as one of the best drag-flickers in the country, it was a skill that happened by accident. “In 2004, I was in a sports hostel in Chandigarh and the India junior hockey camp was being conducted there,” he says. “(Former India player) Clarence Lobo was the coach and Sandeep Singh was one of the members of the junior team. One day during practice, Lobo showed me how to drag flick. He said, ‘yaha se app upar net me ball maaro.’ (‘hit the ball into the net from here’) But I couldn’t get it right. I left it at that, and didn’t bother practicing it again.
“Then in 2007, I went to a junior camp and Jugraj Singh was one of the coaches. He would teach us the drag flick. It is a very difficult skill to learn. But this time since I was in camp, I couldn’t run away from it. Jugraj bhai sar pe khade hote the, chodna hota to bhi chodne nahi sakte the hum. (‘Jugraj would wouldn’t let me be, so I couldn’t stop practicing and leave’)That’s how I started and it took years of practice.”
Standing at 6’4", Rupinder uses the long levers to generate more power. Hockey, where players are hunched over their hockey sticks for an extended period of time, isn’t the easiest of sports for someone with such a high centre of gravity. But Rupinder put in the extra hours in the gym and training to make sure his body can cope with the stress.
“Also, shorter guys are more agile,” he said. “It is easy for them to move around. It is difficult for me to keep that competition with them. But then I have a better reach, which is helpful for a defender.”
When Rupinder made his debut in 2010 at the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup, India was still unsure of its footing in the hockey world. The team had failed to qualify for the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and the sport was receding from public consciousness. To make matters worse, coaches were being hired and fired at a maddening rate, not giving the players any chance to settle.
The pivotal point for Indian hockey was the 2014 Asian Games, when the men’s team won a gold medal. In a fairytale finish, India defeated Pakistan 4-2 on penalties in the final to win the coveted title after 16 long years.
“That was my first big medal,” says the defender. “Winning the Asian Games was a big boost. Our coach was Terry Walsh, and the training sessions used to be so intense. I remember we used to train in New Delhi in the May-June heat. We had worked very hard for that and were happy when we won that medal. After we won the Asian Games and silver at the Commonwealth Games I thought we have a team that can achieve something great.”
Over the last 10 years, the Indian team has got fitter and better at defending leads in the dying minutes. “A lot of times, people used to think that we concede goals in the last few minutes because we are not fit,” adds Rupinder.
“That was not the case. Right now the team is super fit. Year by year, day by day, hockey is changing, the intensity is changing and we are trying to keep up with it. We used to concede goals in the final minutes more due to tactical and technical errors. It has improved over the years, mainly due to better communication, but we still need a lot more in that department and learn how to keep the ball position in the last few minutes.”
According to the Indian defender, the pandemic was one of the toughest phases in his career. The team was cooped up at the Sports Authority of India centre in Bengaluru, training day in and day out, with the hope that the Tokyo Olympics would take place.
“For almost a year and a half we were in camp,” he said. “We stayed together for so long, there were no outsiders allowed. It helped the coaching staff work on us without any interruption. If someone was going through a bad time, the team would rally around them. We had become like a family. I think that team bonding helped a lot in Tokyo.”
The players’ commitment to each other was evident at the Tokyo Olympics. Working like a well-oiled machine, they pressed hard together, defended as a team and stuck together even when things didn’t quite go according to plan. They lost 1-7 to Australia in only the second match, but what could have once been a soul-crushing defeat was swept off as a blip. India showed their resilience in the very next match, defeating Spain 3-0. Rupinder scored twice in that match.
“I was yet to have the conversation with the coaches or with Hockey India, but going into the Olympics I knew this could be my last tournament,” he said. “I was hungrier to do well and return with something from Tokyo.”
Winning the Olympics bronze signaled a new dawn for Indian hockey, but for Rupinder it was time to step down. “In sport, like in life, you have to move on, you can’t get stuck on one thing. The first stage of my life is over,” he said. “I am still figuring out what to do after this. But I’m excited for the next stage.” It will be fascinating to see what Rupinder does next.
Deepti Patwardhan is a freelance sportswriter based in Mumbai.