Mandeep Singh's journey from teenage prodigy to India's slender giant

Mandeep Singh celebrates after scoring against South Africa at the 2018 World Cup. Charles McQuillan/Getty Images for FIH

The surest way to know Mandeep Singh is around the corner, says former England and Great Britain international Ashley Jackson, is when you hear an explosion of laughter.

The humour is usually lost on rival defences, three of whom will line up against India in the pool stages of the FIH Series Finals in Bhubaneswar starting Thursday as the hosts look to book their berth in the Olympic qualifiers for Tokyo 2020.

With 60 goals in 137 matches, 24-year-old Mandeep is one of the senior pros in the Indian set-up now, a goal poacher who prides himself on his work rate on the pitch. His coaches and teammates insist he still plays the game with the boyish enthusiasm that saw him stand out for the now-defunct Ranchi Rhinos when they won the first Hockey India League (HIL) in 2013.

What Mandeep probably will admit himself is that he needs one big medal at a global event to confirm his status as one of modern hockey's top strikers. The first step towards that starts in Bhubaneswar.

Former India defender and later assistant coach of the national team Jugraj Singh can remember sighting Mandeep when he was a slender boy of nine, who would come down from Mithapur with his friend and current India captain Manpreet Singh and represent their village team in a family tournament at Khusropur, Jalandhar. "He was street-smart right from that age, and when someone like that understands the basic skills of hockey, that is the icing on the cake," says Jugraj, himself a legendary drag-flicker and a Junior World Cup winner like Mandeep.

Young Mandeep used to play both hockey and cricket. "Cricket mein aise hi chhakke-chhukke (All I ever wanted was to smack the ball)," he told ESPN not long after the 2016 Olympics, with the Punjabi alliteration to explain why he didn't try his hand at bowling. His father Ravinder then asked him to pick one sport, and Mandeep made his way to the Surjit Hockey Academy in Jalandhar for five years.

An understanding of how to create space for himself and exceptional anticipation about being in the right position to finish were the skills that Mandeep brought with him from a young age. A little refinement after working with coaches at the academy, and he was ready to knock on the doors of the senior team. All he needed next was an opportunity to showcase his talent.

"Mandeep plays twice as hard when without the ball. When the ball is not with his team, he is the one who gives 110 per cent to win possession back for his team." Jugraj Singh

When the first edition of the HIL rolled into action in January 2013, the hockey-crazy region of Ranchi got its own franchise to support. Fans thronged to the Astroturf Stadium, built for the National Games of 2011, and tickets were at such a premium that those who couldn't make their way into the hockey ground were accommodated in the football field next door, where a giant screen would broadcast all of Ranchi's matches.

In the company of seasoned internationals like Jackson, Germany's Moritz Fuerste and Floris Evers of the Netherlands, Mandeep emerged as Ranchi's top-scorer with 10 goals as they won the maiden HIL title. Only Sandeep Singh scored more goals than Mandeep at the tournament, and nobody got as many field goals as he did. Mandeep -- who scored two goals in identical 3-1 wins against Uttar Pradesh Wizards on January 24 and 26, either side of the day he celebrated turning 18 with his team -- won the young player of the tournament award.

Jackson remembers Mandeep as "a very young, slender boy with a large personality" and says his love and passion came through not just when he scored himself but also when celebrating goals scored by others. The Ranchi team came up with what they called the 'Rhino salute', holding an open palm out over their forehead, with the tip of the thumb touching their temple. Mandeep says this idea first came in from Evers, silver medallist with the Dutch men's team at the 2004 Athens Olympics.

Rhinos coach Gregg Clark, the South African now working as assistant coach with the Canadian men's team, remembers how Mandeep radiated positive energy right through that month-long campaign. "A young guy, having loads of fun, very respectful, and a lovely smile that could light up a room," says Clark, who also took charge of the junior Indian team around the time. "He just had such an instinct of being in the right place at the right time. He scored a lot of different types of goals for us, which was one of the most impressive things -- deflections, rebounds... He just found different ways of scoring."

One person who wasn't surprised by his success was Jugraj, but how well he gelled with some of the legends of the sport pleased him no end. "If you understand the language of hockey of senior players around you, then there's nothing as beautiful as that," says Jugraj. "When he showed his striking prowess, then selectors, officials and fans all realised just how good Mandeep Singh is and what skills he possesses."

The senior India call-up didn't take long to come; Mandeep was part of the first Hockey World League team for India and joined his friend Manpreet in the Indian team for the final in New Delhi that winter.

Jugraj points to Mandeep's commitment off the ball as his greatest virtue. "He plays twice as hard when without the ball," he says. "When the ball is not with his team, he is the one who gives 110 per cent to win possession back for his team. He's very naughty off the field -- when anybody celebrates a birthday, he's the one who definitely smears them with cake on their face, and he has spared nobody -- but once he enters the field, he's the most sincere player, whether at training, in practice games or competitive matches."

Mandeep missed being a part of the Asian Games gold-winning team in Incheon in 2014, but played for India during their Champions Trophy silver and quarterfinals finish at the Olympics in 2016. By his own admission, he has overcome a loathing of gym work over the past couple of years, and realised that strength training will be an important part of staying fit to add to his hockey skills.

However, over the last year, his performances have dipped off in crunch games. At the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, he scored just two goals, in group matches against Wales and England. At the Asian Games last year, he scored nine of India's 76 goals in the group stages, but then failed to score in the knockout stages as the team settled for bronze. Last year's World Cup in Bhubaneswar was little better, as he scored just one goal against South Africa. In 2019's only competitive outing, Mandeep was the joint top-scorer at the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup with seven goals, but again failed to sound the board against South Korea in the final, which India lost via shootout.

"A trend with the Indian team, the missing piece in the puzzle if you will, is to win in big games and score in important matches," says Clark. "The key is to produce your best when the chips are down. He's still young and if he can start scoring important goals in important moments, then that will make him a top, top player."

Jugraj exhorts Mandeep to carry the mantle of being among the senior most players in the current set-up with maturity. "Way back when he was young, senior players carried him," he says. "Now he needs to develop that understanding and gelling with the younger players. He needs to stay calm and teach the youngsters to handle the pressure. He has got good competition [within the team] and that's a good thing for both him and the junior players."

Mandeep, whose goal is to win a World Cup medal someday, prefers keeping it simple, despite a hockey obsession that, he admits, has him talking about the game in his sleep. "Keep a smile on your face and do the right thing," he told ESPN in 2016.

Jackson has a simple message for a friend he calls 'Fatty': "Keep loving what you're doing, just like you used to in 2013. Take your strengths and make them stronger.

"Be yourself."