When Manpreet Singh went to the Olympics for the first time in 2012, he was just 20. Already a mainstay in India's midfield, having spent a year with the seniors, he was surrounded by experienced players like Sardar Singh, Tushar Khandker, SK Uthappa, Danish Mujtaba, SV Sunil and Dharamvir Singh, and would later reflect on the pressure of "not committing mistakes in front of such big players" on the biggest stage.
India, coached then by Australian Michael Nobbs, had their most chastening campaign ever -- the non-qualification to Beijing four years prior notwithstanding -- losing every single game in London, including the playoff for 11th place with South Africa to finish last.
When India take the field against Russia for the 2020 qualifiers in Bhubaneswar on November 1, Manpreet will walk on to the turf at the Kalinga Stadium knowing that most of the world is looking at his team as potential podium finishers in Tokyo. Only Sunil matches his 259 caps in the current team, and Manpreet's role in midfield has helped make India a force to reckon with over the past two Olympic cycles.
He is the rightful owner of the captain's armband in coach Graham Reid's side.
Hockey, itself a physically and mentally exhausting sport, perhaps demands much more of those in central midfield. The basic expectation is to be able to link defence with attack, and protect the ball and retain possession for your side as much as possible. Any ability to perform further tasks -- accelerate into space, break through opposition defences with accurate passes, get the team out of tight defensive zones, and organise your team and communicate all situations to them -- is a bonus.
Manpreet does all of this -- in addition, he also scores goals, and is India's designated first runner when defending penalty corners. By a conservative estimate, an aerial pass launched at about 100 km/h from the defensive third gives a team just about two seconds to convert it into a scoring position. Two seconds, both for one team to go from defence to attack, and the other to drop from looking to score a goal to preventing one.
It is Manpreet's speed, both of thought and of feet, that make him the focal point of such transitions for India.
Former India defender Jugraj Singh was among the first to spot the talent in Manpreet, who would accompany his friend Mandeep Singh to village matches in Jalandhar. "He was seven or eight years old. His assets were there [then] as well, and that was the reason we used to call him 'Korean', because he was fast and crisp, and slight in nature. His movements were like that. He was a key player that time in his village team as well," remembers Jugraj.
Elevation to serious hockey wasn't easy though, and not just because Manpreet's parents, Baljit Singh and Manjit Kaur, didn't have much money to spend on his passion. His older brothers Amandeep and Sukhraj played hockey too, but a serious injury while playing stopped Amandeep from going far in the sport. It also made Manpreet's parents want to shield their youngest child from potential physical harm.
Manpreet's first coach, Surjit Singh, had to convince his parents of the boy's potential, and eventually they would allow him to enroll at Jalandhar's famous Surjit Hockey Academy in 2005, and his career graph would go upwards from there.
In 2011, Harendra Singh had taken charge of the Indian team after the resignation of Spaniard Jose Brasa, and Jugraj was among those who recommended Manpreet's name for the national team. "He [Jugraj] said, 'woh Korean ladka bahut accha hai (that 'Korean' kid has something about him)' and so I got him [Manpreet] into the national camp," remembers Harendra, who would reunite with Manpreet later both in the Hockey India League (HIL) for Ranchi Rays, and also for the national team ahead of the 2018 World Cup. "He is a fighter, on and off the field. He stands his ground, and sets an example when leading the team. Nobody can claim to have given him anything on a platter."
Manpreet's game was intrinsically suited for leadership, and he was rewarded with captaincy of the Indian team at the Junior World Cup in New Delhi in 2013. He would also feature in the 2014 Asian Games gold-winning team -- a moment Manpreet still picks as his favourite -- and featured in two HIL-winning squads in 2013 and 2015.
However, it was between April 2016 and June 2017 that Manpreet cemented his place for India -- a period that would see him grow as player and person.
At the 2016 Sultan Azlan Shah Cup in Ipoh, India beat Japan to get their campaign going, but Manpreet learnt of his father's death just ahead of the match. He would fly home for the last rites, even as India lost to Australia, but his mother Manjit asked him to rejoin the team in time for their next game. Manpreet returned, and India won 3-1 against Canada and 5-1 against Pakistan, to make the final, with Manpreet opening the scoring in the Pakistan game inside four minutes.
In itself, this wasn't an unusual event for a sportsperson -- Sunil had not been informed initially of his father's death while he was with the team at the 2010 Azlan Shah Cup -- but observers felt it did make Manpreet take up greater responsibility in the team.
After the 2016 Olympics, and ahead of the 2017 World League Semi-final in England, Manpreet was appointed captain of the senior team for the first time, on a tour of Germany.
"The first quality of leadership is if someone can shout on the field," says Jugraj, who was assisting then India coach Roelant Oltmans around the time. "A captain has to communicate as well as give the right directions to his team mates. We felt with seniors like PR Sreejesh and Sardar still around, it was a good time to test Manpreet. That was the moment, when his leadership came to light."
Former India coach Cedric D'Souza, who has also been a commentator for most of India's games over the last six years, has seen that development in Manpreet too. "If you look at him before, during or after a game, he reflects genuine happiness. Body language in the game is so critical. Whenever India have lost, he has taken it upon himself and owned responsibility," says D'Souza. "He's always been a source of encouragement for his team mates. He leads by example."
In many respects, Manpreet is the heartbeat of the Indian team -- perhaps more so since the retirement of Sardar Singh. On the pitch, he is five feet and seven inches of speed, athleticism, indefatigable energy and heart. "I associate Manpreet with his tremendous thrust, strength on the ball, and vision. He's equally adept at attack, can score goals, and is equally good at dropping back and leading the defensive line," says D'Souza, who thinks the atmosphere within the team in the run-up to the qualifiers is a credit to both Manpreet and his immediate chemistry with Australian coach Reid.
The dilemma ahead of Russia is a tough one -- mark Manpreet too closely, and they risk opening up spaces for the likes of Sunil, Mandeep, Akashdeep Singh and Ramandeep Singh. Leave vacant spaces in midfield, and Manpreet will slalom through defences and then bring both flanks into play as India engineer attack upon attack.
How well Reid's India execute this plan in Bhubaneswar will give a good idea of how matches in Tokyo could pan out next August -- and you would expect 'Korean' to be in the centre of everything, running the show in the middle, willed on by the intent of erasing any memories of London 2012.