This piece was published on Sportskeeda
Sports is a great leveller. Only four months back, Khadangbam Kothajit Singh was riddled with disappointment. The belligerent midfielder could not make it to the final squad of 16 (he was picked in the side only as a standby).
But that pall of dejection is now a thing of the past as Kothajit has been named the vice-captain of the Indian junior team for the 2nd Sultan of Johor Cup beginning in Malaysia on Sunday. Not just that, the Manipuri lad has also rightfully earned his place in the senior team for the upcoming two tournaments in Australia – Lanco International Super Series and the prestigious Champions Trophy.
The 20-year-old Indian Oil employee, who has made 21 international appearances, polished his hockey skills in his formative years while turning out for the Posterior Hockey Academy Manipur (he started represented them since the age of 14). The nippy midfielder joined the Sports Authority of India’s (SAI) Lucknow centre in 2009, where he honed his skills under the watchful eyes of Mohammad Raza.
He made a big impression at the 34th National Games in Ranchi in 2011 before going on to make his senior international debut during the five-match Test series in early 2012.
Kothajit talked about the disappointment of missing the London Olympics among others in an exclusive interview with Sportskeeda.
You did a decent job at the 2012 London Olympics qualifiers held in New Delhi. You were part of the team for the four-nation tournament held in London prior to the Olympics as well as the 2012 Sultan Azlan Shah Cup. How disappointing was it to know that you were named only as a standby?
Firstly, it was a strange feeling not to be part of the 16-member squad. But you must remember that I was part of the 18-member squad but as Olympic rules clearly state that only 16-member squads can be accommodated in the Olympics village, I had to be one of the two standbys.
I tried to remain positive telling myself that age is on my side and that I would get opportunities to represent the country at the Olympics in future provided I keep performing. I didn’t want to think too much about what was not in my hands.
There were huge expectations that the Indian team would give some top teams like Australia, Netherlands and Germany a run for their money, especially after the emphatic fashion in which the team performed in the Olympics qualifiers. Sitting on the sidelines, what do you think could have gone wrong?
I agree that the country had a lot of expectations from the team but tell me which teams plays to lose? Winning and losing is part and parcel of the game. It’s unfair for me to pinpoint any particular reason for our poor show given the fact I did not play at the Olympics.
You have been named the vice-captain of the Indian junior team for the 2nd Sultan of Johor Cup. What are your thoughts on being entrusted with vice-captain responsibility?
I’m happy at being made the vice-captain of the team. Whether you are captain or vice-captain you got to perform. I’m playing in the Sultan of Johor Cup for the first time (I did not play the inaugural edition), which makes me extra determined to do well for the country.
How do you rate India’s chances in the 2nd Sultan of Johor Cup?
I think it will be an evenly contested tournament. Australia, Germany, Pakistan, defending champions Malaysia are all dangerous opponents. India, too, have a capable side. I feel that any team that plays good hockey on a given day would pull it off.
Talking of your presence in the senior team, you would be playing under a new captain – Sardara Singh. Your thoughts.
I have always felt that a captain is only as good as his team. Sardarabhai is an extremely hardworking guy. He is always there with his inputs – he guides us on improvement areas. I’m looking forward to playing under him.
Indian team will have a new fitness trainer in Jason Conrath who will replace David John. John was been quite a hit with the boys for the manner in which he improved the fitness levels of our players. What’s your take?
David (John) really did a fantastic job. He would give us a tough workload but at the same time would also allow us enough recovery time. He would tell us when to take protein supplements and when not to take. If a player had excess fats, John would advise that player to avoid rice and opt for roti. Again for a player like me, he would advise me to take rice to add fat content in the system. The fitness levels of the boys improved significantly after he took over.
The prestigious Champions Trophy will be India’s next major tournament after the disastrous London Olympics campaign. How well prepared are India for this tournament?
It’s not going to be easy for us as all the world’s top teams would be participating. We have worked hard at the national camp in Patiala, hopefully we would put up a good show.
Every player likes to think that there is always room for improvement. What areas do you think you need to work on?
I don’t want to dwell on what improvement areas I need to work on but yes, I’m short on experience at the moment and would like to gain more experience.
You played in the four-nation London Olympics preparatory tournament in London as well as at the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup. For someone who made your senior international debut this January (against South Africa in the first Test at Delhi), exposure-wise what have you gained from these two tournaments?
The London four-nation tournament helped me to gain experience of playing against European teams who indulge in body play. You have to play 70 minutes of tough, rugged hockey as teams resort to pushing and tight marking. At the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup, I was more exposed to the Asian style of hockey with not much body play involved. Both these tourneys besides my debut series against South Africa have helped me to improve as a player.
What long-term goals you want to achieve for the Indian hockey team?
I want to play a big part in India bagging a gold medal at the Olympics as well winning major events like the World Cup and Champions Trophy.
What kind of high you get wearing an Indian hockey team shirt?
It’s hard to describe that feeling. When I was playing my debut match against South Africa, I was wearing pride in my India shirt. I still remember the sight of singing the national anthem in that game when I had tears in my eyes.
You are born in a hockey family. Your three elder brothers have played for ONGC and Army XI. Your elder sister was also a hockey goalkeeper. So you took to hockey like a fish takes to water.
They all had a huge influence on me taking up hockey. Dhaneshwor Singh and Rinen Kumar play for Army XI, while Jayanta Kumar plays for ONGC.
Manipur has boasted of producing players like Thoiba Singh, Tikken Singh, Neelkamal Singh and Brojen Singh. You are bandied about as the next best hope from not just Manipur but also from the Northeast region. How does it feel?
Thoiba, Tikken, Neelkamal and Brojen have all served the country with great distinction. I have a long way to go before I can come anywhere close to their feats. I will be delighted if I’m remembered like them once I call it a day.