Hockey World Cup: Akashdeep's redemption dream
The India star didn't make the cut for the Tokyo Olympics but wants to make amends at the World Cup
Akashdeep Singh's two strikes – an inside-out hit and a reverse flick – were significant in contributing to India’s victory against Wales in their last group match on Thursday.
From poacher to striker to attacking midfielder, the 28-year-old has performed whatever role has been handed out to him over the past decade since his debut at the 2012 Champions Trophy in Melbourne. With gold medals in all Asian Champions Trophy, Asia Cup and Asian Games, Akashdeep has enjoyed success in his career, winning awards ranging from leading goalscorer to Player of the Series. He was also the most expensive buy at the 2015 Hockey India League (HIL) auctions, going for $84,000.
The striker, a lynchpin of the team for many years, however, missed out on the team’s greatest achievement in 41 years when he was dropped from the squad for the Tokyo Olympics. From the highest of highs, Akashdeep experienced the lowest phase in his career. It hurt him even more when India returned home with the bronze. Seeing his friends and teammates wear the Olympic bronze medal gave him happiness and grief in equal measure.
“Yes, that was quite a tough period for me. I cannot even explain how painful it was, how hurt I was. I never thought I would not be on the team that was heading to the Olympic Games. When something happens that is not expected, it can be very difficult to accept. To say I was sad would be an understatement. That was a big emotional hit,” said the Arjuna awardee.
Every athlete waits four years for an opportunity to represent his nation at the Olympics but when the dream shatters, it's a tough pill to digest. But Akashdeep decided to move on. He didn’t take time off and went back to the drawing board. Away from his team and the national camp, the forward set his focus on returning to the Indian team, working hard on his skills at the Punjab Armed Police — where he’s employed — training centre in Jalandhar.
Akashdeep carved out his own training schedule — multiple sessions on the pitch and half of it in the gym — to improve his fitness and gain confidence. His goal-scoring instinct, presence of mind and peripheral vision in the striking circle are what made him every Indian coach’s primary playmaker. The Punjab player tried bettering his attacking skills before returning to the domestic circuit, playing for Punjab Police.
The national selectors couldn’t help but reselect him for the national camp. This time Reid decided to test him at the 2021 Asian Champions Trophy in December. The striker rose to the occasion by scoring goals against Bangladesh and Pakistan in the pool stage before scoring the winning goal against Pakistan in the bronze medal playoff.
He was also chosen for the 2021-22 edition of Pro League, scoring against France in February 2022 in what was his 200th international. Strong performances in the Pro League got him selected for the Commonwealth Games (CWG) in Birmingham, the 2022-23 Pro League and also the bilateral Test series against Australia.
But Akashdeep did not take anything for granted and waited with bated breath for the day when India would announce the squad for the World Cup. On December 23, Akashdeep knew he would be playing in Odisha in January.
"My only aim was to make a comeback to the Indian team. Every training session became very important for me. I had to improve myself with each session. When you're dropped for such a big tournament, naturally your confidence also goes down massively. My main aim was to rebuild my confidence, avail and make use of whatever chances I get," said Akashdeep, who has scored 74 goals in 221 internationals.
Having missed the medal at Tokyo 17 months earlier, Akashdeep is eager to help India win a first World Cup medal here, his third World Cup, since 1975. “I am trying to play my best hockey. My main aim right now is to do well here. I want to play well from hereon and see to it that India wins a medal at the World Cup in front of our home crowd,” he said.
Akashdeep is out to redeem himself.