Rupinderpal Singh was the vice-captain of the Indian team at the 2014 World Cup in The Hague. However, when India hosted the Cup last year, the drag-flicker was one of the surprise omissions. In pursuit of a comeback, Rupinder competed at the National Championships in Gwalior, where he guided Punjab to a runners-up finish on Sunday. A day before the final against Railways, he spoke to The Indian Express on his exclusion, the impact of injuries he has suffered and the need to take inspiration from world champions Belgium’s success model. Excerpts from an interview:
What were you up to when the team was playing the World Cup?
I tried to stay away from everything. I took some time off and went on a small vacation abroad. It was painful to watch the World Cup on TV because I strongly felt I deserved to be there.
Were you surprised to find out you weren’t in the team?
Till the time they did not announce the team, I was sure I’ll be a part of it. So yes, it was a big surprise to see that I wasn’t in the team. To be honest, I got the team’s list a couple of days before it was officially announced. Something was doing the rounds on social media apparently and someone sent me a screenshot at around 2am. It wasn’t an accurate list, but my name wasn’t in that list so I got a bit disoriented… I couldn’t sleep the whole night. I asked the coach (Harendra Singh) but he said he didn’t have any comment to make. He said a few things recently about senior players being there in the World Cup squad. But I feel he should have fought for us before the World Cup.
Have you figured out why you were left out?
I wasn’t given any reason. But I accepted the decision… From a player’s point of view, at the start of the career, the ambition is to just play a World Cup. But after that, you wish to do something meaningful and not be there just for the sake of it. After playing the 2014 World Cup, I realised there was no value to it unless you won a medal. You have to play to win. So that disappointment was there. The next World Cup is very far away – in 2022 or 2023. Now I have to start afresh, first I have to get into the team. Then focus on the Tokyo Olympics and after that the next World Cup. It’s a long journey now.
Does it get tougher because you have spent a lot of time in the last two years nursing injuries?
Returning from an injury is very tough. I suffered a couple of injuries in 2017, was out for six months, made a comeback and then suffered a hamstring injury. It was one of the most challenging phases of my career. Immediately after an injury, you can’t expect a player to return to the same level as he was before the injury. It takes time to get back into rhythm. During this phase, a player needs support from his coach.
So was there a lack of support or just the nature of the injury that made the comeback tough?
It’s the nature of the injury. If you have a serious injury, it takes time to build confidence. The other players had been training non-stop for a year while you are forced to sit out. So there is a drop in fitness levels and a lot of catching up to do. For example, I suffered an injury at the 2014 Asian Games. It took me a year and a half to reach my top fitness and form. Throughout 2016, I was consistently among the highest scorers for the team. Yet, I missed the World Cup.
Sardar Singh said there was a lot of instability within the team during the whole of 2018. Do you agree?
I don’t know about that. (But) we need to look at Belgium. They have had the same coach for such a long period. They had an average outing at the Champions Trophy and also suffered a heavy defeat to Holland. Even then, they continued to have faith in the same coach, same players and same style. They targeted only the major tournaments – the Olympics, Euro Nations Cup, World Cup… everything in between was just a part of preparation for them. That continuity and like-minded thinking across all levels has been the key to them being world champions. If there is constant change, players suffer the most.
In what way do the players suffer?
Players work really hard. We wake up before the sun rises, khoon-pasina dete hai, we are away from our homes the whole year. All these sacrifices are just for one purpose – each of us wants to win. And when things don’t go as planned, we are the biggest losers.
You said you spend a long time away from family. The Indian team spends close to 300 days a year in camps and tournaments. Do you think there is a need to have a re-look at the system?
If there are long camps before a good tournament, then it becomes a source of fatigue. Right now, we have a two-three-week camp before a tournament. Our system is getting better. Earlier, we used to have camps that lasted for two months. Now it’s getting more practical. We can’t compare our structure with foreigners. Firstly, most hockey-playing nations, except Australia perhaps, are small so for them to get together for four days every week isn’t that big a task. And when their players are not in the camp, they are given a proper schedule that they need to follow to ensure their fitness levels do not drop. We need to understand that in India, we need such a structure because some players do not have top-end facilities in their villages to maintain their fitness levels. Hence we end up spending around 300 days a year in camps so that everyone gets the same facilities. It is fine, as long as we get regular breaks.
Do you think the team’s Olympic qualification is tricky because India isn’t playing the Pro League?
The first qualifying tournament (FIH Series Finals, in June) shouldn’t be that big an issue. The final round in November will be challenging. But by that time, we should be set as a team with a new coach. Generally, we need six months to gel with a new coach. So we should be a well-settled unit by the time the main Olympic qualifiers take place in November.
Lastly, how do you feel about your chances of making a comeback?
I don’t know… I hope to return. I played the national championships for Punjab and gave everything I had. Now it’s up to the selectors.