BESIDES LEADING India to the Junior World Cup final against Belgium on Sunday and being the ever-reliable centre-half all through this tournament, Harjeet Singh has made a seemingly trivial, but significant, off-the-field contribution to this under-21 team. His strong, steaming ginger tea, brewed exactly the way his father did, is something that his coaches and teammates can’t do without when they sit to strategise at team meetings.
Harjeet grew up watching his father, Rampal, a truck driver, disappear for days. However, before he hit the highway, Rampal would head to the kitchen, with the rest of the family waiting eagerly, and come out with a tray full of steaming cups. “It would be very strong, with lots of ginger. He used to boil it on high flame for a long time. The more you boil, the better it tastes. It used to keep him awake all night,” recalls Harjeet.
Harjeet isn’t the only player in this squad whose father is a driver. There are six others with a similar back story: goalkeepers Vikas Dahiya and Krishan Bahadur Pathak, defenders Harmanpreet Singh and Varun Kumar, midfielder Sumit Kumar and forward Ajit Kumar Pandey. Their fathers may not have taught them hockey skills, but they were their driving force.
How Ajit Kumar got serious about hockey because of his father’s profession is an interesting story. Jai Prakash, Ajit’s father, was employed by a local bigwig Tej Bahadur Singh, more popularly known as ‘Bhaiyya’ in Ghazipur district of Uttar Pradesh. An ardent sports lover, ‘Bhaiyya’ started a hockey academy at a school in Ghazipur. He relaid the surface, replacing grass with artificial turf. He also provided free hockey sticks and took care of the players’ dietary needs.
At that time, Ajit Kumar was studying at the school where the academy came up, but he wasn’t keen on hockey. But a casual conversation between ‘Bhaiyya’ and Jai Prakash one day changed his destiny.
“During one of their trips, ‘Bhaiyya’ told my father that I should join the hockey academy. Next morning, I was running laps around the hockey pitch,” says the 21-year-old.
After former players Shashi Kant and Vinod Kumar, Ajit Kumar is the third from his academy to play international hockey. He isn’t the tallest on the pitch. Neither is he strongly built. But he makes slippery runs behind the back line, and has a habit of being in the right place at the right time.
He scored a goal in a similar fashion in India’s 4-0 win over Canada in the opening match, off an assist by Harmanpreet, who is fast gaining the reputation of being one of the team’s star drag-flickers and one of the hardest hitters. Even in a packed, noisy stadium, you can hear the sweet-sounding thwack every time the 21-year-old plays one of his trademark long, diagonal balls inside the opponent’s ‘D’.
Harmanpreet credits the strength in his forearms to hours of driving his father Sarabjit’s tractor. As a child, Harmanpreet remembers being fascinated by the farm vehicle that his father would rent and drive. He wasn’t daunted by its size, but the young Harmanpreet found it difficult to manipulate the gear shaft. “My father taught me how to drive the tractor, the trick of changing gears — that is the toughest part,” he says.
The old rusty gear box took a toll on his shoulders and arms initially, but as the years passed, he developed enough strength to master it. “Bas, dekhte he dekhte, dolle ban gaye. PC mein kaam aata hai kaafi (Just like that, I formed biceps. It helps a lot in penalty corners),” says Harmanpreet.
Varun Kumar, whose father Brahmanand drives a Matador 407 tempo in Punjab’s Mithapur village, has been flamboyant on the wings. He has also showed potential with his drag-flicking ability.
Goalkeeper Vikas Dahiya’s heroics helped India beat Australia in the penalty shoot-outs during Friday’s semifinal. His father, Dalbir, is a driver with a private firm in Sonepat while back-up goalkeeper Krishan Bahadur Pathak’s father, Tek Bahadur, who died earlier this year, was a crane-operator.
Like Vikas, midfielder Sumit Kumar’s father, Ramji Prasad, is also employed as a driver in Varanasi. Sumit has been a silent workhorse in the midfield, and was instrumental in setting up India’s win over Spain in the quarterfinals.