Updated: November 27, 2021 7:29:56 am
There wasn’t ever any doubt that Araijeet Singh Hundal would grow up to be a hockey player.
His grandfather had laid the foundation for others in their village to play the sport. His father played for top teams in national-level competitions. So did his uncles, extended family and family friends.
It was natural, then, for him to carry on the tradition. But as a forward? That, for someone who grew up to be 6-foot-3-inch tall, was going against the convention. “People would ask, kive manage karenga, tere godeyan vich jaan hai? (How will you manage, are your knees that strong?),” laughs Jagbir Singh, one of the few 6-foot forwards to have played for India.
When it comes to forwards, the thinking goes, the smaller the better. It was because of this logic that Hundal’s father Kuljit, a former full-back for the Railways, was chucked out to the defence. “But defenders get battered. It’s a very painful role,” Kuljit says. “I didn’t want my son to come home bruised after every match. So, we put all effort in making Araijeet a forward.”
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Few outright Indian forwards have been as tall as the 17-year-old from Amritsar. Gurjant Singh, the scorer of the goal that won India the last Junior World Cup, stands at 6 foot but Hundal is at least a couple of inches taller and is a lot leaner yet stronger.
In that sense, Hundal – one of the standout players from India’s first two matches of the Junior World Cup and the man of the match in India’s 13-1 demolition of Canada – is an anomaly in a vertically-challenged forward line of Indian hockey.
An eight-second spell against France, one of the fast-improving sides, was enough to show the asset he can be for the national team if the transition is handled well.
The forward leaned forward slightly and used his long reach to win a 50-50 ball in the centre of the midfield, towering over the others. Then, while shepherding it with the stick using just one hand, he glided on the surface with his giant strides, keeping the defenders away and entering the ‘D’ without any fuss. He didn’t shy away from taking a shot at goal either, using all his upper body strength to do so, but putting it wide.
But in those few seconds, the advantage of having a tall forward was apparent. “In my time, we’ve not had a striker as tall as him,” says India’s former High-Performance Director David John, who has been involved with Indian hockey for a decade.
Lack of size
Tall forwards are at a premium not just in India but in world hockey overall. Dutch star Mirco Pruyser, also 6’3”, is among the few six-foot-plus strikers, an attribute that made him one of the most sought-after strikers in the Hockey India League, where he played for Punjab Warriors. “One of the main reasons we picked him was because of his height and the variety he brought to our attack,” Jagbir, who was the team’s advisor, says.
In 2016, the International Olympic Committee released the anthropometric data of players across different sports from most participating nations. It revealed that of the 12 nations that competed in the Rio Olympics hockey tournament, the shortest players were from India, with the average height measured at roughly 5’8”, nearly 3 inches less than the tallest side, the Netherlands.
The lack of size hasn’t hurt the team so far. “The reflexes and brilliance of Indian forwards make up for it,” Jagbir says.
Height, however, offers some clear-cut advantages. Jagbir lists a few: using the long reach to keep the ball away from the defender, using long strides to approach the ball before the defender inside the circle, and using the physique to steer clear of the tackles. And, just like a tall forward in football who has an advantage in aerial duels inside the box, in hockey the extra inches can be helpful to deflect a cross by diving – an art Jagbir learnt in 1989 when Australia’s Ken Read was training the team for a few weeks.
Even in terms of on-field combinations, short strikers often complement their tall partners – the former with their remarkable reflexes and the latter with their reach. “When running with one hand, I always had the advantage of my reach. As a tall person, bending forward increased my reach with the ball,” Jagbir says. “If the vision is also good and the back is good enough to look up while carrying the ball, that’s icing on the cake.”
Ticking all boxes
Hundal’s mentor Balwinder Singh Shammi, who was Jagbir’s teammate at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, attests that the teenager ticks most of those boxes. He spent four years under Shammi at Maharaja Ranjit Singh Academy in Amritsar, where Tokyo Olympics bronze medalists Dilpreet Singh and Shamsher Singh honed their art. “It isn’t just his height,” Shammi, a lanky forward himself, says. “Araijeet has a sharp hockey brain, has a very powerful shot and can also take drag-flicks. He is an all-around player.”
But with a giant frame comes peculiar issues. The first is the length of the hockey stick, which for most players in India is around 36 inches on an average. Hundal uses a stick that’s two inches longer and though it might sound like a small adjustment, the 38-inch sticks aren’t easily available and at one time, had to be custom made. Not just the length, the weight of the stick is also crucial for a player to keep the balance – the lighter the stick, the better the balance.
Then, there’s the body’s maintenance. “I had to endure many ankle sprains and a severe back injury. If your neck, abdomen and back aren’t strong, then you won’t last long. So I worked on that for extra hours after training. Then, if you want to have flexible hips to change direction, you have to keep body fat levels to a minimum else you’ll move slowly,” Jagbir says. “With sports science, these challenges can be dealt with but they are challenges nevertheless.”
As a teenager who is playing only his first junior international tournament, these thoughts haven’t crossed Hundal’s mind. He knows just two things: “I have a powerful shot and because of my height, I can be a good forward.”
If there was any doubt about that, he’s laying it to rest now.
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