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XtraTime VIDEO: India’s Sandesh Jhingan – Blessed to have played alongside best defenders!

Big, burly, and snarling. That is how most people expect centre-backs to be. However, the position itself requires someone with a much more nuanced understanding of the game and its tactics.

India has always produced quality centre-backs at the Asian level, be it the likes of Gostha Pal in the pre-independence era in the two-back system, or Jarnail Singh in the golden years, followed by the likes of Syed Nayeemuddin. Carrying on the tradition is current India defender Sandesh Jhingan, who debuted for India in 2015 and has since gone on to represent India in 60 international matches, donning the captain’s armband on seven occasions.

While his partners at the heart of the Indian defence have changed over the years – starting with Arnab Mondal, Anas Edathodika, Adil Khan, and then on to the modern era with Anwar Ali and Rahul Bheke – Jhingan has remained the one constant.

“I really enjoy playing the centre-back position. It is a crucial position where you need to find the proper chemistry with your partner,” Jhingan said. “I’ve been blessed to have played alongside some top defenders of our time, really.

“When I was first called up back in 2013, I was the fourth-choice centre-back. The legendary Mangi bhai (Gouramangi Singh) was there, along with Arnab Mondal, Raju Gaikwad. Mangi bhai is also a coach at my club (FC Goa) today,” said he. “I’m just so lucky to have played with these guys. And from there on, I’ve played with others like Anas, Adil, Anwar, and Rahul too. We’ve all fought so many battles together on the pitch, I feel lucky to have played alongside them all.”

The Indian defenders have won much praise in 2023, winning nine clean sheets in the year. However, the man quietly working behind the scenes was former India centre-back and current assistant coach Mahesh Gawli. The respect that Gawli commands within the dressing room as one of the best defenders of his time and as an assistant coach is massive.

“Mahesh bhai needs no introduction. He’s been one of the stalwarts of the game during his days as a player, and now we learn so much from his experience,” he said. “What he’s done for the country is immense, it’s just great to have him around. People should give him a lot of credit when they praise us for keeping clean sheets.”

“I still remember the first time I met him, it was quite unique. It was 2013 or 2014, and I was yet to make my debut for India at that stage,” recalled Sandesh. “Subrata bhai (Paul) first introduced me to him and said, this is Jhingan, he will be the next big defender and all that, and then he asked Mahesh bhai to give me his blessings. I bent down and took blessings from him. That’s the kind of respect he commands from everyone around him.

India are set to play in the AFC Asian Cup for the fifth time in the history of the tournament and have been drawn alongside Australia (January 13), Uzbekistan (January 18), and Syria (January 23). For Jhingan and the Blue Tigers, it’s all about remaining focussed on the job ahead.

“The tournament atmosphere is different, but it’s great. You want to be a part of such an atmosphere, and I enjoy it quite a bit,” he said. “But when you’re in that moment, you don’t get to feel much of it, because you’re in the zone or the mind space.

“In 2019, we didn’t feel it as much, but once you come out of it, you realise that this was there, and then you tend to reflect on it,” he said. “But we’re all grateful to be here at such a prestigious tournament, and there’s positive energy all around. To be a part of the whole journey, and to finally arrive at the main stage is a moment of pride.”

About Arunava Chaudhuri

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