A player who fails is like a broken tree… without support will suffer. I hope that’s not the case with Arshdeep Singh: Mir Ranjan Negi

I am 64, but I am not too old to follow social media on my cell phone. Twenty-three-year-old Indian pacer Arshdeep Singh was trolled by fans on social media for a dropped catch against arch-rivals Pakistan in the Asia Cup in Dubai.

I followed the kind of abuse Arshdeep received as well as the messages of support.

My first thought while watching Arshdeep was that these things like a dropped catch are just a part of the game. No player drops a catch intentionally.
In the first match between India and Pakistan earlier in the tournament, Arshdeep took two wickets. Some of the others players did not play well on that particular day. India had won the first match so those shortcomings were ignored. It was bad luck that India lost the match and Arshdeep was blamed for the loss.
India and Pakistan had not faced each other in cricket since last year and with both countries not playing any bilateral series, such matches in multi-team tournaments are the only way players like Arshdeep Singh can experience the pressure. So each India-Pakistan game is like a festival for the fans as well as for the people of the country. When one team wins, there are celebrations in one country and sadness in the second country.

After India versus Pakistan matches in cricket nowadays, I see players from both countries sharing a good laugh but they only know in their hearts how much pressure such matches bring.

Seeing a young Arshdeep play against Pakistan took me back to the days when I was 21 and played my first test series against Pakistan. We played the second match of the four-Test series at a packed East Bengal stadium in Calcutta.

After we scored one goal, Pakistan got a penalty stroke and I saved Kalimullah’s shot with a dive and also saved another penalty stroke again taken by Kalimullah.
It was for the first time that I got to experience what a win over Pakistan meant. I had only listened to fellow players or coaches saying things like ‘kisi bhi team se har jao par Pakistan se nahi harna chahiye’ (Lose against any team but don’t lose against Pakistan).

Weeks later, when we went to Pakistan to play the remaining two Test matches, the first thing we saw was a cartoon in a newspaper depicting Kalimullah as a small rat aiming for the penalty stroke and my caricature as an elephant saving the penalty stroke. It made us laugh but also made us understand the kind of pressure
they too faced at home.

We roamed in Karachi and Lahore buying onyx lamps, for which no shopkeeper took money from us. We would also be hosted by Hasan Sardar (centre forward and 1984 Olympic gold-medal winning captain) and others at their homes for dinner.

Surprisingly, we noticed one strange thing. All Pakistani players would give us a cold shoulder when there was an official reception by a political leader like General Zia Ul Haq (Pakistan president).

Back then every kid knew our names and the tension between India and Pakistan politically was also on a high. The Pakistan team had some big players like Hasan Sardar, Kalimullah, Samiullah, Manzoor Junior, who died last week, in their ranks and our players like Surjit Singh, Zafar Iqbal and Mohammed Shahid too would match them or excel against them.

I remember that once in the Asia Cup, our three forwards missed a penalty stroke each. After this people started saying that the Pakistanis did some black magic on us.

In the 1982 Asian Games, I remember that Delhi was decorated like a festival. There were new stadiums, flyovers, and posters all over the city apart from the euphoria over the games being telecasted on colour TV for the first time. During our practice sessions at the national stadium, the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s younger son Rajiv Gandhi, who was a pilot at that time, would visit the Indian team along with the chairperson of the Asian Games organising committee Buta Singh.

Rajiv would tell us, “Bharat ne jitne bhi gold medal jeeta hain, hockey ke gold medal sabse beshkimiti hain (The hockey gold medal is the most precious). If you win, you will be taken on trucks in a parade”.

So you can understand the pressure on us. My roommate Mohammed Shahid and I could not even sleep at night thinking about what would happen in the matches. Prior to the final, I had saved a couple of penalty strokes and my confidence was high.

Going into the final, we knew that one of our fullbacks was playing with an injured leg and he was playing in his first match of the Asian Games.
We scored the opening goal through Zafar Iqbal but then the Pakistanis took advantage of the weak fullback and made a flurry of attacks against our combination of 5-3-2. It meant that I was under pressure. When Kalimullah, Hanif Khan and Manzoor Junior scored goals before half-time, I asked the coach to replace me at half-time.

After half-time, there was a moment when Hasan Sardar picked the ball in front of my face and I could have hit him with the hockey stick, conceded a foul and perhaps stopped the goal. But I didn’t do it because of sportsmanship.

The rest of the match, we played haplessly. Our defence was broken completely. Even bigger players than me would have crumbled at that time and it was a disaster for us.

When the match ended, the crowd started shouting and abusing the players. I also got to know that Mrs (Indira) Gandhi had sent her aide RK Dhawan to tell the coach to replace me. While a lot of angry fans shouted my name abusing me, the only grudge I had that day was that neither the captain nor the coach supported me.
The next day, I was dropped from the team and there was a news report that Negi took one lakh for each of the seven goals scored by Pakistan. There was also a newspaper report that there would be a CBI inquiry against me. Two days later, I and some of my teammates went to Pandara road to have dinner and people started shouting at us saying that we are partying after winning the silver medal.

The only thing which made me strong was that I knew that I had not done anything wrong. When I returned to my home in Indore, my home was vandalized. I worked in customs at that time and nobody in the office would talk with me. Sometimes, when I would go for training, people would say, “Saat goal khane wala a gaya” (The chap who conceded seven goals is here). But sitting at home with my father and brother, who always told me that they knew that I could do nothing wrong, gave me a lot of strength. I always wanted to be in hockey. I did not have any option since I could not speak about the bad tactics by the coach in the final or anything against the hockey federation. The support system of my family and friends kept me sane.

Arshdeep too has his parents as well his team’s support. He will get his chances again in this tournament as well in the future. One thing which I liked was former skipper Virat Kohli, who had supported Mohammad Shami earlier after he was targeted on social media, supporting Singh too.
In hockey, even today, this is not possible as players are afraid of administrators. We had a player being sacked in recent years because his girlfriend was from Argentina and nobody spoke a single word.

I was lucky that I had a shot at redemption, first as a coach of the 1998 Asian Games gold medal-winning men’s hockey team and then as a coach with the 2002 Commonwealth Games gold medal-winning Indian women’s hockey team. History has seen many players, who failed and could not make a comeback. A player who fails is just like a broken tree which without support will suffer the most. I hope that’s not the case with Arshdeep Singh. I think everybody can relate to Arshdeep’s dropped catch and the way he almost redeemed himself in the last over. Each one of us can lift ourselves up after one mistake or a missed chance in life.

(Mir Ranjan Negi spoke to Nitin Sharma)

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