Bhubaneswar: Ahead of the FIH Men's World Series in Bhubaneswar, Ramandeep Singh had his back to the wall. He was making a comeback to the national team after missing the action for almost a year. He suffered a chondral fracture in his right knee during India's match against Pakistan at the FIH Men's Champions Trophy in June last year, an that was expected to rule him out of action for two years.
It was a crucial year for the Indian men's hockey side, with the team set to play at the Jakarta Asian Games and later the men's World Cup in Bhubaneswar. Ramandeep missed both the tournaments. Fighting his way out of injury and making a 'quick' recovery, the Indian forward returned to the field during Senior Men's National Championship for Punjab, but suffered a stress fracture in his ankle. A career-threatening injury and the frustration of missing key tournaments had pushed Ramandeep into depression.
Playing at the Kalinga Stadium in the just-concluded FIH World Series, Ramandeep had hoped that the bad days are well behind him. He did all he can to get himself fit for the event in Bhubaneswar. The start was slow, the goals were not coming for the forward despite India scoring heavily against the likes of Russia and Uzbekistan. Akashdeep Singh, who scored a hat-trick against the Uzbeks, supported his strike partner after the match, saying it's difficult to make a comeback after back-to-back injuries, and Ramandeep's time will come.
His time came in the semi-final. A match-winning performance saw him score two crucial goals against Japan and helped India make it to the Olympic Qualifiers.
"When you are making a comeback after a year, it takes little time to combine, because the structure changes and there are new players as well. And also, you need a bit of confidence," Ramandeep said after India beat South Africa in the final of the FIH World Series in Bhubaneswar.
Ramandeep says he was playing good but the goals were not coming. He knew it was just a matter of time, and was happy to score goals against Japan in a tricky semi-final.
"Happy to perform when the team needs the most. In Asian Games, we scored heavily but lost an all-important semi-final. Semi-finals are the most important games. The game against Japan was a crucial game for us. The pressure was high because we have to make it to the Olympic qualifiers, we played as a team and we played good hockey to beat Japan."
Ramandeep was confident that India would clear the group stages, but the knockout matches are always tricky. He was also confident about his skill-set, but he wanted to prove himself in crunch situations. Overall, he is satisfied with his efforts in the tournament.
"Japan was not an easy game. I knew we will not face much hurdles in our Pool matches, but the knockouts are tricky. I was confident about my skills, but I wanted to prove them (again). It's not easy to make a comeback after two back-to-back injuries. I worked really hard. I thank Hockey India, SAI and all my coaches who believed in me and now I can say that I have proved myself."
After the semi-final triumph, India did go a step further, beating South Africa comfortably in the final. An upbeat Ramandeep is finally at peace after a turbulent year in which he spent quite a few dark days, recuperating at SAI Centre in Bengaluru and at his home. In order to fight the depression, Ramandeep took to reading and constantly spoke to a former India international, who he considers as his big brother.
"Yes, I read quite a few motivational books because I had a difficult injury. One in a million suffer this kind of injury. I went into depression. I was performing good but then I missed major tournaments because of the injury. At that time, you need some motivation," Ramandeep said.
"I used to speak with Kanwalpreet Singh Chahal. He's a former hockey player who played quite a few matches for India. He's currently a SP (Superintendent of Police) in Punjab Police. He's like a brother to me. He motivated me a lot. He also suffered a knee injury and had to quit playing, so he understood my condition. He told me I had to continue playing."
The injury trouble hit the Indian forward at a worst possible time. Apart from missing big tournaments, Ramandeep was also gutted because he was at the peak of his sporting prowess. He knows it will take some time to get back to the previous fitness levels, but he's leaving no stone unturned to get back to his best.
"As you saw, I played an entire tournament, so fitness-wise, I'm ready to play. But I have to work harder in the next national team camp. When I got injured last time, I was at my peak. Now, I'm trying to get back to that level. The more matches I play, I feel like regaining my best."
It doesn't take a lot of time for things to change in India hockey. After the World Cup, Indian men's hockey team is now under a new coach Graham Reid. Ramandeep understands that his role in the current national setup has changed and he's up for the challenge.
"Earlier, we used to play with three strikers. Now, we play with two strikers up front and two attacking midfielders. So yes, my role has been slightly changed. Now, I have to do the defensive duty as well and also try to make assists. I have to combine with forward players like Akashdeep and Mandeep. And I think we did that really well throughout the tournament," Ramandeep said.
The win in the final ensured India get the maximum rankings points from the tournament and will now gear up for the two-legged Olympic qualifier, set to be played in October and November. Ramandeep will know that his redemption story has just started. He will aim to help his team qualify for the Olympics first and then try to for the ultimate glory in Tokyo next year.