Harjeet Singh likes making chai. Kadak chai.
At the national camp, when he is not plotting for the next match or tournament with the coach, the junior hockey team captain ensures he makes a good strong cuppa for rest of the players. Truckers’ special, he says. “Kadak chai honi chahiye paaji. Zyada adrak and you should boil it properly. The more you boil, better it tastes,” he says. Harjeet used to observe his father, a truck driver, make tea before he embarked on his long late-night journeys. “It used to keep him awake all night. Truck waalon ki chai alag hoti hai. Neend nahi aati. It keeps you fresh and alert,” he adds.
It’s a recipe he uses to keep his team awake and alert as well. He says this in jest but he might only be half-joking. Under his leadership, the junior team has blossomed. They won the Asia Cup last year, a tournament where several faces emerged but Harjeet stood out with his mature displays in the midfield. He was rewarded for his consistency with a first-ever call-up for the senior team for a major tournament when chief coach Roelant Oltmans included him in the squad for the Azlan Shah Cup next month.
His growing stature was further asserted when the 20-year-old was named the ‘Upcoming Player of the Year’ at the Hockey India annual awards ceremony here on Saturday. He clutches on to the Rs 10 lakh cheque he has received as prize money as he settles in a chair to talk about his journey. “This amount is life-changing,” he says.
Harjeet knows a thing or two about hardships. The biggest hurdle was the financial aspect. His father did not earn much to support his playing career and when the time came to buy his first kit, his family had to borrow money. When his hockey sticks used to break, his seniors at the Gopal Hockey Academy would lend him one.
But soon his family turned against him playing hockey. Harjeet started playing the sport in early 2000s only because others kids from his village did. His biggest hero back then was a local player who used to create ‘magic on the field.’ He hadn’t heard of any of the stars of that era and certainly not the yesteryear greats. But he liked being there with the big boys and took pride in the little responsibilities he was given – even if it meant carrying the kit bags of the senior players.
Monetarily, however, it became increasingly tough for his family to meet the demands. “They told me to stop playing the sport, feeling it was tough to make a career in hockey. Instead, they wanted me to focus on studies instead. But I used to sneak out of the house and continued playing at the academy. I must have been around 9 or 10 years old back then,” he says. “For the longest time, they were not aware that I was playing hockey.”
By the time his family came to know, Harjeet had already made a name for himself. Soon, he left his village to join the famous Surjit Singh academy and when he returned in 2013, his parents stood at the bus stand to welcome their son, who was named the most promising player at the Sultan of Johor Cup in Malaysia. “They took me around the entire village in an open-roof jeep and there were posters of me everywhere. It felt incredible because as a kid, I used to take the same route hiding from all the known faces so that they wouldn’t tell my family that I continued to play hockey,” Harjeet says.
Today, the centre-half is pushing for a place in the squad for the Olympics. And it won’t be a surprise if he makes the cut. Junior team coach Harendra Singh admires Harjeet’s leadership skills, saying he is wise beyond his years. “He is always looking for ways to keep the team together and interested, which you don’t see often in players of this age. Technically, too, he is good especially when it comes to bringing others in the play,” Harendra says.
The chai experiment maybe is one of the ways to bond with his teammates. “You can talk about so many things over a cup of tea. I enjoy making it for others and I think they like it too. And like I said, it keeps you alert so maybe it’s helping them on field too,” he jokes.
On the field, too, Harjeet is the junior team’s creative outlet, modelling his game on Sardar Singh and Manpreet Singh, who also play as centre-halves. It was evident in the way he played in the junior Asia Cup last year, where he not only created moves but also scored an odd goal or two. He opened the scoring in India’s win over Pakistan in the group stage and was named man of the match in the final, where they once again defeated Pakistan to clinch the title.
Harjeet says he isn’t thinking about the Olympics but the opportunity with the senior team, he hopes, will help him for the junior World Cup that will be held in India in December this year. “The Azlan Shah Cup will be great for me in the sense that I will be able to observe first hand how Sardar paaji, Manpreet paaji prepare for big matches and what they do on field. It’ll be a big experience for me. Then, when I return to the junior team, I hope to implement those things,” he says.
THE WINNERS AT HOCKEY INDIA AWARDS:
Major Dhyan Chand Lifetime Achievement Award: Late Shankar Laxman
Dhruv Batra Men and Women Player of the Year Award: PR Sreejesh and Deepika
Jugraj Singh Award from Upcoming Player of the Year (men): Harjeet Singh
Asunta Lakra Award for Upcoming Player of the Year (women): Preeti Dubey
Baljit Singh Award for Goalkeeper of the year: Savita
Pargat Singh Award for Defender of the year: Kothajit Singh
Ajit Pal Singh Award for Midfielder of the year: Ritu Rani
Dhanraj Pillay Award for Forward of the year: Rani
Jaman Lal Sharma Award for Invaluable Contribution: Baldev Singh (coach, Shahbad Academy)
President’s Award for Outstanding Achievement: Madhya Pradesh Hockey Academy