Sticking with the drag, flick!

Deccan Chronicle.  | Irfan Haji

Sunday Chronicle, sportfolio

The Punjabi hockey player who used to farm, is now raring to go and learning from top notch players in the hockey league’s Dabang Mumbai team.

Harmanpreet Singh

From the rich and burgeoning farms of Amritsar rose a hockey stick wielding star — Harmanpreet Singh. Little did he realise that he would become the next drag-flicking sensation of India. The 21-year-old is setting himself on course with some breathtaking performances at the top level, to carry forward the legacy set by his state-mates like veterans Jugraj Singh, Gaganpreet Singh, and currently Rupinder Pal Singh. The Punjab lad was picked by the Hockey India League (HIL) franchise Dabang Mumbai three seasons ago for $51,000. He displayed a stupendous skill set with the junior India team in Malaysia and Australia in 2015. He also scored 15 goals at the Junior Men’s Asia Cup the same year, including four in the final against arch-rivals Pakistan to help his side win the tournament. The sprightly lad then went on to break in the senior team and represent India at the Rio Olympics last year. In December 2016, he was a crucial part of the India junior team that lifted the World Cup in Lucknow after defeating Belgium in the final.

His tryst with hockey, surprisingly, was chance and destiny coming together. “I was lucky to start hockey. After finishing school exams, we were asked to choose a sport, and I had actually gone to play football. But, I spotted the hockey coach there with four to five players on the field. They asked me to join, so I started playing hockey and my journey started,” recalls Harmanpreet who hails from Jandiala Guru, a village in the outskirts of Amritsar. He later joined Surjeet Academy in Jalandhar with the aim of becoming a striker but working with senior penalty corner specialists Gaganpreet and Sukhjeet Singh motivated him to become a defender. From the age of 10, he had started to help his father in the fields, and tried his hand on the tractor, and those rusty gear sticks helped build his shoulders and develop power, that as fate deemed, came in extremely handy in the drag-flicks later on.

But now, not in the fields anymore, nor driving a tractor, hockey consumes him day and night, and he is focused on training to improve his skill. “I helped my father a lot early on, and would have gone on farming, but now that hockey has come to the fore, my family is supportive and wants me to enjoy and concentrate on the game. We have good trainers at the national camps, and they have given me a good workout routine. I use that even when I am free or just chilling at home,” says the ace Indian drag-flicker who had no hockey background. His family, parents and an elder brother adapted when they saw his talent shine. In the past too, Punjab has had a history of producing India’s greatest drag-flickers and Harmanpreet wants to follow their footsteps.

“Jugraj’s hometown is close to mine, and I have visited his home once or twice. He knows me well, and we meet at award functions and he says a lot of good things to me. Rupinder is my favourite. I have learnt a lot from him, and other senior players in the Indian team like PR Sreejesh and Raghunath. They have guided me on how to play under pressure when I made it into the senior team,” he says. Despite being with Dabang Mumbai for three seasons, Harmanpreet hasn’t had much time to be with the team, given the short duration of the Hockey India League, but his commitment towards his sport and franchise shines through. The Salman Khan and Akshay Kumar fan likes to catch up with friends when home. “When I am free, I love to hang out with friends and travel to Shilaru near Manali or Chandigarh. I don’t like travelling long distances, though,” he said.

His teammates in the World Cup winning junior Indian team — Krishna Pathak, Nilkanta Sharma, Manpreet Singh, Vikas Sharma and Gurjant Singh are also a part of Mumbai franchise. Sharing his Olympic experience and knowledge with teammates during the junior World Cup, Harmanpreet wants to help out in any way possible. “I played with the world’s top teams during the Rio Olympics. It was a great experience. I shared it with the teammates in the junior team,” says the drag flicker who regards Junior India coach Harendra Singh among the best coaches.

He feels a great sense of achievement to play alongside, and opposite great players in the HIL. “HIL has big names, playing with them gives me the confidence. It is also a great achievement. We have senior players like Jeremy Hayward, (goalkeeper) David Harte, Florian Fuchs, Nikkin Thimmaiah in our (Mumbai) squad who instill confidence. If you make mistakes, they motivate you and say next time, you will improve. It feels great and you always learn from such great players whom you had earlier only heard or watched on TV,” he says, while hinting that getting past the tall (6 feet 5 inches) Irish goalkeeper Harte has helped him find accuracy.

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