SV Sunil is a veteran in a team that is otherwise throbbing with young talent. Indian hockey sorely missed his services when he was out with injury for nearly a year. This period included the all-important World Cup. Missing the biggest tournament of the sport was a big blow to the experienced forward.
But the 30-year old is now back and feels himself close to top form. With the abundance of youngsters in the forward line, his skills and knowledge could be highly valuable for the Indian team in the run-up to the Olympics next year.
In an exclusive interview with International Business Times, India, Sunil discusses his struggles with injury and the road ahead for both himself and the team.
You made a comeback to the Indian team after a long break due to injury. How did you feel when you returned on to the field?
Sunil: It was a little tough. I was out of the team for nine months because of injury. Making a comeback is difficult for everyone. I went through many ups and downs in these nine months because when you suffer an injury, your whole body structure changes. Fitness also goes away. So, it takes a lot of time to return to the level of fitness you previously had.
My trainer and physiotherapist had kept me in rehab. I followed their instructions. It took around one whole year before enough improvement had taken place to allow me to play in the recent Olympic Test event in Tokyo. I am feeling good that I have made a comeback. But I need to work a little harder still.
Do you feel your old rhythm is back or will it take time?
Sunil: The rhythm is almost completely back. It's bound to be difficult if you have been out of international action for nine months and then suddenly return to that level. I was struggling initially but after that, the more matches we played, the more settled I became within the team. So, I think if I get an opportunity again during the Belgium tour, I will perform even better.
You are one of the senior players in the team. Alongside you, there are a lot of talented youngsters in the forward line. Do you feel a sense of extra responsibility for guiding the youngsters in the team?
Sunil: Yes, that is a big responsibility I have. All the strikers we have currently are young players and it's important to guide them. This responsibility is on me and I think we did very well in the last tournament. There were a lot of field goals. So, I think if I am again given this responsibility, I will carry it well.
This was your first tournament under Graham Reid. How was the experience of working with him?
Sunil: It was good. He keeps things simple and doesn't complicate matters. So, it's easy to understand what he is telling me and the team. I think it is a good thing as complicating things too much confuses players. He keeps things simple and tells us what the target is and we work on that only.
What is your favourite position in the forward line?
Sunil: When I started out, it was in the right-out position. Now, the situation is such that you have to be able to play in every position. If you are not playing in the right-out position, then you have to find a different one. If you are not able to play in a different position, it would be difficult to find a place in the side.
I think, currently, all the forwards can play in any position that they are given. Our practice is for that. I think one has to have the options of being able to play in any position, be it right-out, left-out or center-forward.
Hockey, nowadays, requires that you should know the role of every position in the team structure as well as what you want to do and need to do in that position. We are told all this in the team meeting. So, in my opinion, it is a good thing that every player has to be ready to play in different positions.
Does it happen sometimes during a match that, if you feel you can do better in the other flank, you exchange your position with the other winger?
Sunil: We discuss these matters before and during the match also. If things are going well, we play in the same position. The help of fellow players is very important. Without their support, we can't play well. So, communication is very important. We talk together and whichever position we get set in, we play in that.
How has been your experience of playing with young attackers like Mandeep Singh, Akashdeep Singh, etc.?
Sunil: I have been playing with them for many years. Our combination is very good. They listen to what I have to say. That is very important in a team game. I think both of them are sensible and smart players. I like playing with them.
We have good eye-to-eye communication and good combination when it comes to beating the defenders in one-on-one situations. I know where they need the ball, when will they come forward, etc. So, our combination is very good.
One interesting thing is that almost all the forwards in the Indian team currently are from Punjab while you are from Karnataka. Are there any language issues?
Sunil: I have learned quite a lot of Punjabi after being in the Indian team for many years. So, I can understand them. There is no issue with the language. They also talk in Hindi with me generally and I am able to understand Punjabi quite easily.
You are from Coorg which has been a great center of hockey in India. Is the passion for this sport in that regions still as strong as before?
Sunil: It is still very strong. There is a famous tournament that takes place in Coorg where more than 300 teams participate – a world record. There is craze for hockey in every school. A lot of clubs exist there still. We just need a little more support from the state government and sports associations. Many good players will come from there if they provide support.
Normally in India, kids like to play cricket on the streets or football. Are children in Coorg region more inclined to play hockey?
Sunil: They really like hockey. Cricket is obviously there but they love hockey most. If there is a match going on somewhere, everyone, be it kids or elderly people, they all come to watch. That craze is still there.
You said some more assistance is needed from government and state bodies. What kind of support specifically do you think is required?
Sunil: Infrastructure. If the grounds are better, more kids would come. Tournaments take place on astro-turf. After playing all the time on other surfaces, it is difficult to shift to playing on astro-turf. I think if the facilities are good at the grassroots level, things would be better.
Currently, I am the only one in the team from Coorg. The graph of Coorg hockey has gone down. So, I think it's very important to have astro-turf grounds.
Last year, you got married. How much change has come in your life after that?
Sunil: A little girl has now entered my life. That is one change. My wife supported me a lot when I was injured. I got injured when I was at my peak. I wanted to play in the World Cup but couldn't. So, I was very upset. My family, friends and teammates supported me a lot.
I think it is a lesson for me. I had got injured earlier as well but came out of that also. You get to learn a lot when you are injured.
You must have watched the World Cup last year where the Indian team lost to Netherlands in the quarter-final. How frustrating was it for you to watch that and not being able to do anything?
Sunil: I was very hopeful that we would win. Because the way the team started the tournament, they were in very good form. But, due to many small errors, we lost the match. When you are sitting outside, you feel very angry. You think, "If I was there, I would have done that" but in reality, you wouldn't have been able to that, they are just thoughts.
In your mind, you get a lot of ideas about what you would have done. But only those who are on the ground can do anything. Everyone gave their 100% effort but the luck wasn't with us.
The Indian team is playing quite aggressively these days. Does the coach expect you to be very aggressive also and keep launching attack after attack?
Sunil: In the last tournament, we kept our opponents under a lot of pressure continuously. We played in full press mode. We never allowed them to come forward. You must have noticed the scores. We scored heavily in all the matches, except for one where we lost to New Zealand. But even in that game, we lost after taking a lead and conceding a goal right at the end of the match.
I think if we keep the opposition under pressure right from the beginning, they won't be able to move higher up the pitch. So, ours is attacking hockey and not letting defenders come forward. That is our plan.