"It was hell. I was in pain - mentally and physically. Lonely, depressed and frustrated." Ramandeep Singh lifts his track pant up to the right knee to reveal a horseshoe-like scar. It's not jarring anymore, but when he took the bandage off the first time after the surgery, it wasn't a pretty sight. Those stitch-marks are a constant reminder of a phase in his career he desperately wishes to wipe off from his memory.
It started during the match against Pakistan in the Champions Trophy last June in Breda, Netherlands. In the final seconds of the campaign's opening match, Ramandeep delivered a gorgeous cross, from close to the half line on the left, into the 'D', where Lalit Upadhyay dove behind the defence to deflect the ball into the goal. In basketball terms, it was a buzzer-beater. Ramandeep, however, did not celebrate the goal. Instead, he limped off to the bench and sat, clutching his right knee. The pain began around four minutes before half time. But Ramandeep ignored and continued playing, assuming it was a minor niggle. Half an hour later, he couldn't walk or stand. "Body mein current pass hota tha when I tried to walk," he says.
They took him for an MRI scan and the report showed he had torn a ligament, meniscus and cartilage near the right knee. The 14mm cut, the doctors said, would take at least two years to heal. And there was no guarantee he could play again. "My mind went numb," Ramandeep says. "The doctor virtually declared the death of my career."
If Ramandeep were a cat, he would be two lives down. He suffered a severe facial injury during a practice match just before the 2014 World Cup, which he had to miss as a consequence. Another injury forced him out of another World Cup. But it wasn't career-ending, as initially feared.
On Sunday, he scored a goal in Punjab's 3-2 loss to Railways in the final of the National Championships in Gwalior. It's his first competition in almost eight months. And it's not been a bad outing. Ramandeep scored four goals and recorded three assists. His leg was heavily strapped but he didn't show any signs of pain. Fitness, he admits, isn't up to scratch. But it's the best shape he's been in since last June.
He frequently ran behind defences, found gaps with twisting and turning feet to do what he does best: get into goal-scoring positions. It's the twisting and turning that led to the injury in first place. Ramandeep isn't aware when, but at some point in the Pakistan match, an exaggerated movement of the right knee caused severe damage.
After he returned from Breda, Ramandeep directly went to a sports scientist in Bangalore who conducted further tests. Amidst all this, his family offered prayers at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, desperate for some pine intervention.
"Perhaps it worked. When the results of the tests conducted in Bangalore came, it turned out the damage wasn't as bad," Ramandeep says. "The tear was just 7mm and not 14mm, as feared earlier. It was still extremely severe, but the doctor said I could be back after six months." The surgery was complex. According to Ramandeep, the doctor had remove 6mm of healthy cartilage from a non-weight-bearing area of the knee joint and put it in the damaged portion. "It was a painful surgery. The actually physical pain of the surgery was a lot," he says.
The meniscus is responsible for load bearing, shock absorption and stability enhancement, among other things. The damage and surgery meant Ramandeep's lower-body strength was reduced. "Because of the injury and the operation, my calves became very weak. That was another issue I had to work on."
That meant further delay in his return and whatever little chance he had to play the World Cup was now completely gone. "I had to spend more time in rehab," he says. "Alone and frustrated." He's been around for so long in the Indian hockey team that it's easy to forget Ramandeep is just 25. He pides opinion like few others in this team. Those who support him marvel at his ability to score goals out of nothing. And he's scored some important goals for India. But his critics frown upon his tendency to miss sitters - 'he misses more than he scores,' it is often alleged.
That's one of the reasons he was dropped from the squad for the Commonwealth Games last year. "I was not expecting it. The coach (Sjoerd Marijne) believed I didn't fit in his strategies. I thought I was playing well. But never mind."
He returned for the Champions Trophy, where India played under a new coach (Harendra Singh, now sacked). But Ramandeep's comeback lasted just one match. India's capitulation at the Asian Games in Jakarta pained him but he still was jealous of his teammates. "They were all together in it. But I was alone in Bangalore.
The loneliness during that period is what affects players the most. There are people to help you. But still, you are doing everything by yourself," he says. "I read some motivational books, prayed. There were times during this phase when I thought I was recovering well. And then, suddenly, there would be phases where I would feel, nahi yeh nahi ho payega. It was mentally torturous. I had to start from 0."
When his teammates were away playing the World Cup and he was finally given the green signal to indulge in light training sessions on field, Ramandeep started with the women's national team.
"Those were light training sessions. But at least I was back," he says. "I had missed the World Cup twice, in 2014 and now in 2018. I was dropped for the Commonwealth Games and I missed the Asian Games. The only reason I could get through this phase was because I had the guts to bear the pain and was strong mentally. I had faced similar injuries before so I knew if I let this pass, things would get better." The National Championships was the stage to prove his mettle to the selectors once again. A reminder, sort of, that he is still around. Hockey India will announce a fresh group of probables for the Tokyo Olympics this week.
A few changes are expected. Ramandeep is anxious about his place in the team, playing one tournament has wiped off the self-doubts that had developed over eight months. "But I am stronger now," he says. "When you are alone, you eventually become stronger."