Ipoh: A thin, frail frame always hovered around the goal post during the 2013 Hockey India League. Wearing a white turban, the Sikh boy's eyes remained fixated on the ball, waiting to pounce on a pass and score. He did that with consummate ease, every single time, and continues in the same vein fours years later - this time for India, and more importantly when his team needed it the most on Wednesday at the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup here.
Japan, the tournament's lowest-ranked team at No. 16, had come from behind to lead - first 2-1 and then 3-2. With the game entering its last 10 minutes, India were in search of some inspirational play. A defeat and they would have been virtually out of contention for a place in the final. The season opener would have turned into a disaster losing to Asian minnows Japan.
But Mandeep had other ideas. First he drew India level at 2-2 in the 45th minute with a deft deflection and then produced two moments of magic to turn the game on its head.
A 51st-minute pass from Sardar Singh and a 58th-minute diagonal ball from Rupinder Pal Singh found their fate in the back of the net, off Mandeep's stick. From the depth of despair, the Jalandhar boy lifted his team to cloud nine. India were alive and kicking in the tournament with a 4-3 victory.
'I DID MY BEST'
For Mandeep, the win was not about his hat-trick but the desire of the team to leave the disappointment of losing to Australia behind.
"It's one team one dream and a combined effort by the boys. It was important for us to win this match because had we lost, our chances of reaching the final would have diminished. But it was very tough in the dying moments," Man-of-the-Match Mandeep said after India's win.
On a personal note, Mandeep, a product of the illustrious Surjit Hockey Academy in Jalandhar, attributed his goal-scoring ability to the gift of anticipation and sense of positioning inside the striking circle.
"I work on my positioning a lot; this is what earns me goals. I have done the best I could, and I am happy that it contributed to the team's victory," the 22-year-old striker said.
A PRODIGY SINCE BREAKING THROUGH
Ever since he wore national colours for the first time, Mandeep has been part of the core group and even went on to play the World Cup in 2014. However, a finger injury kept him out of the squad for the Asian Games and Commonwealth Games the same year.
While he was unlucky to be ignored for the Rio Olympics last year, a 2016 Champions Trophy silver medal shines brightly in his trophy
cabinet, which now has company in the form of junior world cup gold that India won last year.
Roelant Oltmans is already counting on Mandeep as one of India's go-to men at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
"He is young, turned 22 this January. Probably by the Olympics (in 2020), he will be of even higher quality," the India coach believed.
When prodded further, Oltmans highlighted what stands out in Mandeep's play, which makes him a special talent.
"He is always dangerous, a crazy guy. He is very difficult to defend and in the circle out of nowhere he creates chances," Oltmans said, and then elaborated further.
"He is super fit. You can see not only in his attacking actions but also the way he is putting pressure on opponents. He is working on regaining, which is an important part of our defensive structure, and he is leading in that as well. It's something special that he is
capable of scoring so many goals and at the same time he is more or less the first defender when the opponent has got possession," he said.
MANDEEP ON TOP IN IPOH
With five goals in three matches, Mandeep now sits on top of the list of goal-scorers, along with Australia's Tom Craig, at the ongoing Sultan Azlan Shah Cup. Such is his dominance in India's attack that half of the 10 goals scored by India are to his credit.
"If you look at the number of goals he has scored, for sure (he is our best striker)," said Oltmans. "There is only one other striker who has scored for us so far, which is Akashdeep (Singh). The other (four)
goals we have scored from penalty corners."
India play their last league game against Malaysia on Friday, and Mandeep will once again be critical to India's chances in the must-win clash. However, the striker felt Sreejesh's absence on Wednesday.
"Sreejesh's absence did create a bit of pressure. He is the captain and senior member of the team, so we hope he recovers quickly and returns to the team," Mandeep said.