New Delhi: The script went awfully wrong at the London Olympics - not even a single win and a last-place finish to go with it. Indian hockey hadn't experienced such a dark hour before. But none envisaged that a young team will turn it around just three months later.
Under the inspirational leadership of the mercurial Sardar Singh, who has also been shortlisted for the FIH 'Player of the Year' 2012, India have turned a new leaf and come within one win from a Champions Trophy medal - the first after 1982.
Playing in testing conditions in Melbourne, Australia, India first beat England and New Zealand to top their Pool and then eliminated Belgium in the quarter-finals to fix a meeting with the hosts in the semis. Sardar Singh tells IBNLive.com from Melbourne how his young team is making it happen.
Congratulations, Sardar. You and your team are doing India proud.
Thank you so much. I thank God for this, and of course my team, which is playing amazing hockey. Hope we go on to win the tournament.
...and also congratulations on being shortlisted for the 'World Player of the Year' award
Thanks again. It gives me a lot of satisfaction to be among the top five players of the world. We'll know by tomorrow who is the lucky one, but it's a special feeling to have made the shortlist.
What has made the difference in just three months from the Olympics disappointment?
I will give credit to our defence. [VR] Raghunath and [goalkeeper] PT Rao have put in a huge effort, also Rupinder Pal [Singh]. But Raghu played exceptionally [in the quarter-final] against Belgium. Our wins have a lot to do with the vast improvement in our back-line.
Did the team have any specific strategy going into the tournament?
Michael Nobbs and David John have put in a lot of effort. We practised real hard before the Champions Trophy. Our man-to-man marking was not that good, also the trapping. We also weren't aggressive in the D [striking circle]. All players felt those were the gray areas and did a lot of training in the camp before the Champions Trophy. The communication on the field is also very good, and it's showing in the results.
The side is full of youngsters as some of the experienced legs have been left out of the squad. Any particular player who has impressed you the most?
I won't take any one name as all of them are putting in the hard yard. This is the biggest tournament they have every played. Many of them are coming from the junior squad and there's a big gap between the junior and senior levels. But they are not getting overawed, and that's the sign of a good player. If they play such world tournaments more, they will do even better. But even now they are doing an exceptional job.
Any particular players you miss, like Sandeep Singh?
Any captain will miss the penalty-corner conversion of Sandeep. He has scored a lot for India in major tournaments. He has won matches for us from difficult situations. But Raghu and Rupinder are doing their best, as I said.
Was the team under pressure in the quarter-final against Belgium, considering a loss would have crashed India's semi-final hopes?
It was a pressure match. All the players were under pressure. Plus the [penalty] cards we got doubled the pressure. [Gurwinder Singh] Chandi got a card, then I was sent off for a team foul as the players charged the umpire. Also, we didn't attack consistently. We have to work on that before the semi-final, and we have to avoid the cards.
Next up is Australia in the semis. Your toughest match of the tournament?
Undoubtedly. Australia will be tough, but we have our plans in place. They will also be a touch wary as we are playing well and scoring. The field goals are coming and penalty-corner conversion is not that bad. We have had several meetings. Player meeting, player-coach meeting, coaches have talked among themselves. So preparations are in full swing. Physically, you can say, Australia is better, but in the last one year our fitness has improved. If we play our natural game, we can beat them. On penalty corners, we have 5-6 different variations in place. Hopefully, we earn enough of them and surprise the Aussies.
You and some of the other players, like Sunil, have suffered injuries. What's the status on that?
The climate is a lot different here. The first match [against England] took a toll on our muscles, which led to the injuries. I had a sore shoulder, Manpreet got injured, Sunil pulled a hamstring. But we are close to 100 percent with repair work that is still on. Sunil's hamstring is not back to normal yet but he will do his best tomorrow. He should make the starting eleven.