Before scoring the two goals in India’s 5-4 win over Germany in the bronze-medal playoff, it was again Simranjeet who had helped India pick up the pieces in the pool stage after being thrashed by Australia 7-1.
A late inclusion to the Tokyo Olympics squad as an ‘Alternate Player’ (standby), Simran watched the first two games from the stands of the Oi Hockey Stadium and received urgent summons, after the Aussie hammering, to be ready for the game against Spain. He scored the opening goal; but his versatility, dynamic movement with the ball and peripheral vision had a bigger impact.
India win bronze after 41 years 🥉🇮🇳 | #Tokyo2020 Highlights
An attacking midfielder, Simran helped India rediscover the fluidity missing in their midfield and made the attack more robust with his ability to preempt spaces to score from and ball control under pressure. Not to forget, his short and long-pass distribution when playing the role of a midfielder alone.
Unfortunately he was laid low by a knee injury after the Tokyo Games, spending months in the rehab room at the national camp, missing the Asian Champions Trophy as well as the Pro League fixtures last year. Simranjeet returned for the Asia Cup in Jakarta but came back home midway from the tournament after a hamstring injury. Sources told TimesofIndia.com that “he recovered from the hamstring injury in the next 7 to 10 days and resumed training at full steam.”
INJURED OR IGNORED?
So when Simranjeet didn’t figure in India’s squad for the Birmingham Commonwealth Games earlier this year, it gave birth to an aura of enigma and mystery around his continued absence “despite having returned fit”.
That enigma deepened earlier this month when Simranjeet, along with fellow Tokyo Olympics bronze medallist Varun and back-up goalkeeper Suraj Karkera, was removed from the core group of 33 players as well.
Grapevine has it that “Simranjeet has trained full tilt lately and is injury-free”. Sources privy to the selection of the new core group confirmed that to TimesofIndia.com. However, the line being toed officially remains that Simranjeet isn’t fit and Varun has been ‘sanctioned’ for his schoolboy errors during the Commonwealth Games.
“The reason (for exclusion from the core group) is that Simranjeet is unfit. He hasn’t (trained),” said the chairman of Hockey India‘s men’s selection committee, Harbinder Singh, contrary to what reliable sources have told TimesofIndia.com.
“He wasn’t fit during the trials as well. We had talked to the coaches as well (about it). His training too was just happening somehow. He isn’t fully fit.”
AN ACE UP THE SLEEVE FOR ANY COACH
However, it has been learnt that chief coach Graham Reid had little say in the decision to remove Simranjeet and Varun from the core group. That takes one back to Simranjeet’s celebration after his goal against Spain at the Tokyo Olympics.
After scoring that goal, Simran made a ‘keep quiet’ gesture by putting a finger on his lips, a message perhaps to some who might want to keep him away from national colours? Remember, he wasn’t in the original squad of 16 selected for the Olympics.
India defeat Spain 3-0 🏑 | #Tokyo2020 Highlights
But ever since his heroics in India’s Junior World Cup win in 2016, Simranjeet’s stick-work has caught the eye.
When Simranjeet scored against Belgium in the 2018 World Cup in Bhubaneswar, master hockey tactician Ric Charlseworth compared his ability to stay low and wait for the ball with similar skills in the sport of cricket that former India captain and wicketkeeper Mahendra Singh Dhoni possessed.
Charlesworth craftily narrated the sequence of play involving Simranjeet and former India player Kothajit Singh during a talk-show on the sidelines of the 2018 World Cup.
“The pass (from Kothajit) was a very good one. The hardest thing to do, if you are a striker, is to keep your stick down and to play where the ball is going, when there are all sorts of things happening in front of you. High-quality MS Dhoni play,” Charlesworth had said.
And he explained his reasoning for bringing the Indian cricket legend into his analytical expression.
“Like the wicketkeeper has to always keep his hands there (in line of the bowler’s delivery), the ball never comes, never comes, and suddenly it comes and you have got to be there. Simranjeet was there and his stick was down in the right place. That’s the skill of a striker,” said Charlesworth, who also played first-class cricket besides taking Australian hockey to historic heights as a coach.
Whenever India’s Hockey success at #Tokyo2020 is remembered, the contribution of Simranjeet Singh will figure promi… https://t.co/nk5bwK24HP
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) 1628176024000
OUT OF CONTENTION FOR THE WORLD CUP?
Another World Cup appearance may be tough, if it comes at all, for Simranjeet and Varun.
Technically, this core group of 33 is for the upcoming Pro League games but could also remain to be the one from which the 18 for the 2023 World Cup in January will be picked. Players can technically break into or return to the core group through performances at the senior Nationals, but as an unwritten rule, those changes could only come into effect from the next season, which follows the World Cup to be hosted by Odisha in Bhubaneswar and Rourkela from January 13 to 29 next year.
Does that effectively mean that the World Cup dreams are over for Simranjeet, Varun and Suraj?
An outside chance for them is if someone among the current 33 in the core group gets injured, and coach Reid has a chance to pick replacements. On the other hand, how much Reid can push for a certain player is a matter of debate and discussion.
Chief selector Harbinder laid down the marker for the trio’s World Cup hopes.
“They (Simranjeet, Varun, Suraj) won’t play the World Cup (in 2023),” he categorically said when asked by TimesofIndia.com.
“If there is an injury, another player or standbys can come in. Otherwise, this core group will stay till the World Cup and then maybe there will be changes after the next senior Nationals,” Harbinder added.
(From left, Harmanpreet Singh, coach Graham Reid and captain Manpreet Singh – Photo: Hockey India)
When prodded further, Harbinder’s narrative behind Simranjeet’s exclusion remained the same. But the 1964 Olympic gold medallist perhaps missed a point.
“We have told him (Simranjeet) to regain fitness,” said the chief selector.
But the best chance for any player to achieve that is by having the means at his disposal, which can happen only during the national camp. And when we are talking of players of the quality of Simranjeet in the context of ‘regaining fitness’, they need to be part of the core group, if not in the traveling 18 or 20.
Varun, on the other hand, has been left to lick the wounds he self-inflicted with some silly errors during the Commonwealth Games, especially in the game against Australia. Those errors, it has been learnt, is what left the selectors fuming.
(Varun Kumar – Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images)
But did that warrant a decision to evict him from the core group?
Harbinder put the label of “poor performance in the trials” on Varun’s ouster. But sources close to the development say the decision to oust him from the core group was taken to “instill some discipline in his game”, following his mistakes during the Commonwealth Games.
Again, could that ‘discipline in play’ have been better taught perhaps at the national camp under the Head Coach’s supervision?
The jury is out on that as well.