Indian hockey's find of the Junior World Cup? PC specialist Sanjay

  • The defending champions may have finished without a medal, yet the tournament unearthed some important future talent. With Olympic medal winning drag-flicker Rupinder Pal Singh retiring after Tokyo, Sanjay could step into his shoes
Penalty corner specialist Sanjay executes a drag flick during the Junior World Cup in Bhubaneshwar(HOCKEY INDIA) PREMIUM
Penalty corner specialist Sanjay executes a drag flick during the Junior World Cup in Bhubaneshwar(HOCKEY INDIA)
Published on Dec 06, 2021 08:14 PM IST
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By, New Delhi

Every alternate evening of the past week, the village centre of Dabra, near Hisar, buzzed with more activity than usual as nearly all the residents of the village jostled for space in front of a temporary screen installed in the middle of the square.

They were there to watch one of their own, 20-year-old Sanjay, step on the artificial turf of the Kalinga Stadium, 1900km away in Bhubaneswar, wearing the India blue and smashing in penalty corners (PC) at the Junior World Cup.

Though India failed to reach the podium, losing the bronze medal playoff 1-3 to France on Sunday, the tournament offered coach Graham Reid, who was directly in charge of the junior team after guiding the senior team to a historic bronze at the Tokyo Olympics, something invaluable—a look at players who could soon graduate to the senior squad.

ALSO READ| How India's Olympic-medal winning hockey coach is now transforming its junior team 

 Sanjay, who was the tournament’s joint third-highest goal-scorer and the highest scorer for India with eight goals which included two hat-tricks against France and Canada, would be on top of that list.

Seven members of India's 2016 Junior World Cup winning team were also a part of the team that won the bronze in Tokyo four months ago. One of the finds of that 2016 Juniors was Harmanpreet Singh, who is now India’s main PC specialist and also the vice-captain.

Like Harmanpreet, Sanjay is also a defender, junior team vice-captain and a drag-flick specialist. Though the senior team has Harmanpreet, who was India’s highest scorer at Tokyo with six goals, and a couple of backup drag-flick options like Varun and Amit Rohidas, a huge void was left after the retirement of seasoned PC specialist Rupinder Pal Singh post the Olympics. 

ALSO READ| Tokyo Olympic stars Rupinder Pal, Birendra Lakra retire from international hockey

“Sanjay can definitely fill that void, there is no doubt in my mind,” said Gurminder Singh, coach of the Chandigarh Hockey Academy (CHA) where Sanjay trained from 2011 to 2017 before joining the national setup. “He is currently the most valuable player of the (junior) team. I'm sure you will see Sanjay at the 2024 Paris Olympics.”

Coincidentally, Rupinder is also a product of CHA, located in Sector 42 of Chandigarh as are Olympic bronze medallist Gurjant Singh, Gurjinder Singh and Dharamvir Singh.

Loving the drag flick

Sanjay’s journey began in 2008 when he would accompany his two elder cousins to watch them play hockey in a nearby field. Smitten by the skills of his cousins, the seven-year-old also picked up the stick. After playing in village fields for three years, his cousins encouraged him to give trials for CHA. The son of a farmer, Sanjay decided to undertake the 250km journey to the Haryana capital where he immediately impressed Gurminder and his assistants who enrolled the 10-year-old boy.

It was during his stint at CHA that Sanjay fell in love with the art of drag-flick.

“I used to watch seniors like Gurjinder, who was then playing for India, and others do drag-flick. I was totally captivated by it. I used to feel good and get excited watching people drag-flick. It was something that was completely different than what the rest of the team was doing. I told my coach that I also want to do it,” said Sanjay.

It was fate perhaps that at that time the academy had no PC specialists. Gurminder was on the lookout for someone who was tall, lean yet well-built, and had the strength and speed required to drag. “My coach told me to drag and I started. Slowly I gained more knowledge about the art and started practicing daily. It has been 7-8 years now that I’ve been doing the drag-flick,” said Sanjay, who is pursuing his graduation in Bachelor of Arts from Chandigarh University.

Sanjay first came to larger attention when he captained India to gold at the 2017 Asian School Games and entered the national setup after guiding Chandigarh to the 2016 sub-junior nationals bronze. He made his international debut at the 2017 Sultan of Johor Cup where India finished with a bronze before clinching silver at the 2018 Youth Olympics in Buenos Aires. He was also part of the silver winning team at the 2019 Sultan of Johor Cup in Malaysia before the international calendar for juniors got stalled due to Covid-19.

At the Junior World Cup, Sanjay, apart from scoring eight goals, was also the architect of India’s 1-0 win against Belgium, whose senior team are reigning world and Olympic champions. After creating the ball that earned India the short corner, Sanjay beautifully rotated and pushed the ball to fellow drag-flicker Sharda Nand Tiwari who gave India the win.

“Apart from the single turn, he can also do the double turn. Nobody else in India can do that,” said Gurminder. “His instincts, ability to plan, read the game, 3D skills are something that sets him apart. In fact, there are some skills which he didn’t even show at the World Cup.”

To improve his game, he was in regular touch with Harmanpreet, who was watching from the stands.

“I gave them a few inputs on how to beat the first rusher, positioning,” said Harmanpreet, refusing to divulge more details.

Sanjay, however, elaborated further. “We (drag-flickers) discussed a lot of things like reaction time, especially the couple of times we were slow off the blocks. He taught me how to be faster, what steps to take, what movement to make so that when I flick the ball it will have more speed and power,” he said. “Also, we were hitting the first rusher at times. He told us to drag the ball out of the first rusher’s line and then give the angle at the last millisecond to beat the goalkeeper.”

Disappointed at India’s fourth place finish, Sanjay spoke to his father recently, who then sent him videos of the village celebrating in the square whenever he had control of the ball during the World Cup.

“I was happy to see that. My father kept encouraging me whenever I spoke to him during the World Cup and told me to never lose hope no matter what,” he said.

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    From badminton to cricket, Sandip Sikdar writes on many sporting disciplines. He has the experience of working in digital, news agency as well as print organisations. Motorsport remains his first love.

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Friday, May 20, 2022