Every alternate evening last week, the center of the village of Dabra, near Hisar, was teeming with more activity than usual as almost all the villagers rushed for space in front of a temporary screen set in the middle of the square.
They were there to watch one of their own, 20-year-old Sanjay, step on the artificial grass of Kalinga Stadium, 1,900km away in Bhubaneswar, dressed in Indian Blue and breaking penalty corners (PC) at the World Junior Championships.
Although India failed to reach the podium, losing Sunday’s bronze medal playoffs to France 1-3, the tournament was offered to coach Graham Reid, who was directly in charge of the junior team after the senior team led to a historic bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics , something invaluable – a look at the players who could soon move to the senior squad.
Sanjay, who was the joint third-place scorer of the tournament and top scorer for India with eight goals, including two hat-tricks against France and Canada, would be at the top of that list.
Seven members of the Indian junior national team at the 2016 World Cup were also part of the team that won bronze in Tokyo four months ago. One of the discoveries of that 2016 junior was Harmanpreet Singh, who is now India’s chief PC expert and also vice-captain.
Like Harmanpreet, Sanjay is also a defender, under-captain of the junior team and a drag-flick expert. Although the senior team has Harmanpreet, who was India’s top scorer in Tokyo with six goals, and several drag-flick backup options such as Varun and Amit Rohidas, a big gap remained after retired experienced PC expert Rupinder Pal Singh after is the Olympics.
“Sanjay can definitely fill that gap, no doubt,” said Gurminder Singh, coach of the Chandigarh Hockey Academy (CHA) where Sanjay coached from 2011 to 2017 before joining the national team. “He is currently the most useful player (junior) of the team. I am sure you will see Sanjay at the 2024 Paris Olympics.
Coincidentally, Rupinder is also a product of CHA, located in Sector 42 in Chandigarh, as well as Olympic bronze medalist Gurjant Singh, Gurjinder Singh and Dharamvir Singh.
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Sanjay’s journey began in 2008 when he accompanied his two older cousins to watch them play hockey on a nearby field. Impressed by the skills of his relatives, the seven-year-old also took a cane. After playing in rural fields for three years, his relatives encouraged him to rehearse for the CHA. The farmer’s son, Sanjay decided to embark on a 250km journey to the capital Haryana where he immediately impressed Gurminder and his assistants who enrolled the 10-year-old boy.
During his time at CHA, Sanjay fell in love with the art of drag-flick.
“I used to watch seniors like Gurjinder, who was playing for India at the time, and others are doing drag-flicks. I was completely trapped by it. I used to feel good and excited watching people pull away. It was something that was completely different from what the rest of the team was doing. I told my coach that I want to do the same, ”Sanjay said.
Perhaps fate was that the academy did not have a PC expert at the time. Gurminder was looking for someone who is tall, slender, but well built and who has the strength and speed needed to tow. “The coach told me to pull and I started. I slowly gained more knowledge about art and started practicing every day. It’s been 7-8 years since I’ve been doing drag-flick, ”said Sanjay, a graduate of Chandigarh University.
Sanjay first attracted more attention when he won India to gold at the 2017 Asian School Games and entered the national lineup after Chandigarh led to bronze for the 2016 Junior Championships. He made his international debut at the 2017 Sultan’s Cup of Johor where India is finished with a bronze medal before winning silver at the 2018 Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires. He was also part of the silver team at the 2019 Sultan of Johor Cup in Malaysia before the international junior calendar was stalled due to Covid-19.
At the Junior World Championships, Sanjay, in addition to scoring eight goals, was also the architect of India’s 1-0 victory against Belgium, whose senior team is the current world and Olympic champions. After creating a ball that brought India a short corner, Sanjay rotated nicely and pushed the ball to fellow Shardi Nanda Tiwari who brought victory to India.
“Apart from a single turn, he can also make a double. No one else in India can do that, ”Gurminder said. “His instincts, ability to plan, read games, 3D skills are something that sets him apart. In fact, there are some skills he didn’t show at the World Cup. “
To improve his game, he was in regular contact with Harmanpreet, who watched from the stands.
“I gave them a few inputs on how to win the first assault, positioning,” Harmanpreet said, declining to reveal more details.
Sanjay, however, further elaborated. “We talked about a lot of things like reaction time, especially a few times when 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 hit the ball, there is more speed and strength,” he said. “Also, sometimes we hit the first assault. He told us to get the ball out of the line of the first striker and then give a corner in the last millisecond to beat the goalkeeper. ”
Disappointed with India’s fourth place, Sanjay recently spoke with his father, who then sent him footage of the village celebrating in the square whenever he had control of the ball during the World Cup.
“I was just happy to see it. My father encouraged me whenever I talked to him during the World Cup and told me that I never lose hope no matter what, ”he said.