Bengaluru, January 8: The big problem facing the Indian men's hockey team coach Sjeord Marijne is what to do with a commodity like Sardar Singh. The 31-year-old hockey veteran is a bag of experience in the national team, but he also comes with his own baggage.
That baggage cost him the captaincy in 2016. Sardar was given a rest from his captaincy duties when a British national of Indian origin said she was assaulted by the midfielder. In his place, goalkeeper PR Sreejesh led the team in the Rio Olympics.
One year later, Sardar was slowly pushed away from the scheme of things. When he did figure in the squad for the Hockey World League Semi-Final in London, the sexual assault complaint came back to haunt him. A day after India beat Pakistan 7-1 in the HWL Semi-Final (June 18, 2017), Sardar was taken to Leeds for questioning over the assault case.
Sardar's last tournament was the Asia Cup in October 2017, where he played as a defender. The seasoned midfielder has suddenly become a defender in the side - he even figures as a defender in the 33-man core group's list.
And ahead of India's tour of New Zealand for a four-nations tournament also featuring Belgium and Japan, Sardar has expectedly been left out. The tournament starts on January 17, and will be played at Tauranga and Hamilton. The Indians depart on Friday, January 12.
Sreejesh returns; Sardar, Sunil not included in India squad for New Zealand tour. Glad to see Junior World Cup winner Krishan Pathak making the cut along with a few others from that team #hockey pic.twitter.com/BaV9qLHDGC— Mihir Vasavda (@mihirsv) January 8, 2018
Coach Marijne, however, refuses to call it the end of the road for one of hockey's greatest players.
"We're busy with this tournament and with this tour. Then we'll think about the further tournaments. I can't say anything about the future," Marijne said.
"Sardar playing in the defence was done a while ago, in the Asia Cup last year in Dhaka (in October 2017). Sardar can play in the defence as well as the midfield. It's not that he will not play in the midfield ever. The more positions a player plays, the better are his chances.
"Like I said, he can play everywhere. In the Rio Olympics, he was the striker falling back to defend and he has played in a lot of positions before. We have to see what's best for the team."
Also missing from the squad was forward SV Sunil. Marijne, however, said it was to give the Kodava native some much-deserved rest.
"With some players, we have to manage the body and that's important," Dutchman Marijne said. "They do a lot. Also, we have a lot of tournaments this year. When we select a team, we also choose based on the combition of more things. One of them is Sunil. Sunil has to let his body rest."
He made it clear that some were dropped because of a poor show in the HWL Final, where they managed a bronze. "The same logic doesn't apply to all the players. Every player who is not playing the NZ tour (has been dropped) for a different reason. I keep those reasons to myself. Sometimes the reason may be the body (like Sunil's case) and for others, they have to improve on their techniques. They will train with Jugraj Singh, the assistant coach. Twenty of us will go to New Zealand and it doesn't mean that we don't improve the other ones. We will have one team in NZ and one in India."
Among those dropped were goalkeepers Akash Chikte and Suraj Karkera. Although Chikte was the hero in India's shoot-out win over Belgium in the HWL Final's quarterfinal, the overall keeping in open play for India was poor.
"Akash and Suraj did show their potential at the World League Final, but they have plenty of room for improvement," Marijne added. "They were not consistent. What we want is consistency. Now we want to give Krishan (Pathak) a chance and see how he performs. It's good if the talent pool increases."
Four players - Krishan Pathak, Simranjeet Singh, Vivek Prasad and Dilpreet Singh - will make their senior team debut during the New Zealand tour.
Arjun Halappa is no longer with the team
Meanwhile, former India international Arjun Halappa, who served as the assistant coach, has been let go due to some disciplinary issues.
Marijne, however, said Halappa chose to spend time with his family. "Halappa chose to be with his family, so he'll not be with us (for this tour)," Marjine said. "No, Arjun will not be with the team anymore because he chose to be with his family."
Goalkeepers: PR Sreejesh, Krishan Bahadur Pathak
Defenders: Harmanpreet Singh, Surender Kumar, Gurinder Singh, Varun Kumar, Rupinderpal Singh, Birendra Lakra.
Midfielders: Manpreet Singh (C), Chinglensana Singh Kangujam (VC), Vivek Sagar Prasad, Harjeet Singh, Nilakanta Sharma, Simranjeet Singh and Satbir Singh
Forwards: Dilpreet Singh, Ramandeep Singh, Mandeep Singh, Lalit Kumar Upadhyay and Armaan Qureshi.