A ‘James Bond’ who cleaned at dhabas before practice. One ‘Mr Backhand’ who wowed the Germans and an ‘Australian-type’ from Punjab. The drag-flicker who sculpted his shoulder playing with a tractor and a pair of cousins linking attack and defence. From Karnal to Kochi, Imphal to Varanasi, India’s history-makers assembled to complete comebacks after blood clots and injuries, honour their lineages and end an excruciating 41-year-long wait. Shahid Judge, Shashank Nair and Mihir Vasavda tell their stories.
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Standing (left to right): Rupinder Pal Singh, Surender Kumar, Manpreet Singh, Gurjant Singh, Harmanpreet Singh, PR Sreejesh, Amit Rohidas, Lalit Upadhyay, Birendra Lakra
Rupinder Pal Singh (30, Defender) — Faridkot, Punjab
Rupinder’s elder brother, once a budding state-level player, gave up his hockey career and education to support the financially distressed family and ensured Rupinder’s foray into the sport would not be affected. A cousin of former India stalwart and Olympian Gagan Ajit Singh, it’s easy to recognise Rupinder Pal Singh in a crowd – given his 6-foot-4 frame. He’s known, curiously, among his teammates as ‘Bob’ or ‘Bobby,’ and is considered one of the most lethal drag-flickers ever. He scored four times in Tokyo, including the winner against Germany in the bronze-medal playoff.
Surender Kumar (27, Defender) — Karnal, Haryana
The man from an unlikely hockey destination, Kurukshetra, began playing on pebble-laden grounds near his home before he finally struck bronze. In a very short time, Kumar has turned into one of the calmest and most self-assured defenders in the team, and has great tackling abilities. His stellar rise has also sparked a revolution of sorts in Kurukshetra, where dozens of young kids play the sport wearing jerseys with his name on the back. His family is working in full swing to make sure his new house is ready when he returns – complete with the national flag and Olympic rings as decoration.
The most capped player on the team, Manpreet was lured into the sport by the prizes his elder brothers won when they played. There was opposition at home though, as his mother was not keen to play lest he hurt himself with the hard hockey ball. On one occasion his brothers locked him in a room to stop him from attending training, but he managed to escape. One of his first cash awards was Rs 500. There will be a lot more now, for the inspirational and hard-working captain of the national hockey team, once they return to India with the country’s first medal in the sport in 41 years.
The forward, known for scoring and/or assisting during crucial moments, scored India’s fastest ever goal, after just 13 seconds, during the 5-2 win over the Netherlands at the FIH Pro League in January 2020. But he was already a well-known goalscorer by then. He started playing after watching his elder brother, who played at the national level. He’s got family on the Olympic team as well, and he paired up well with his cousin Simranjeet to assist India’s equalising third goal against Germany. He had also scored the second goal at the 2016 Junior World Cup – a powerful tomahawk (reverse stick) drive. It earned him the nickname “Mr Backhand” from German stalwart Florian Fuchs.
Harmanpreet Singh (25, Defender) — Jandiala Guru, Punjab
A drag-flick specialist and one of the most potent scorers, it’s a trend that has continued since his junior days. He scored six times at Tokyo 2020, behind just three players on the leaderboard. He claims that he started developing the shoulder muscles needed for the art when, as a 10-year-old, he’d sneak his way onto his father’s tractor but would have to wrestle with the rusty gearstick before he could get it started. A few years later he’d move to the famed Surjit Academy where he’d develop his craft further. He’s not just a threat in front of goal, but also a reliable defender and passer.
Growing up in the rural suburb of Kochi, the farmer’s son played whichever sport that came his way, except hockey, which hardly struck a chord among the youth in Kerala. But his shift to Thiruvananthapuram’s GV Raja School, a resident sports school, turned his life around. It was here that he got hooked to hockey after a coach spotted his reflexes. He walked into the junior camp for the Asia Cup 2004 without a proper goalkeeper’s kit, and couldn’t make the cut. Later he was selected for a four-nation tournament in Malaysia. From there, his legend grew steadily, until it burgeoned itself into a massive save at 5-4 with seconds remaining. He’s also an avid reader and a book is one thing constant in his kitbag, no matter where he travels.
Amit Rohidas (28, Defender) — Sundergarh, Odisha
Amit Rohidas is used to taking blows. Be it the 20-25 hits to the body that he takes rushing out to defend a penalty corner routine, or seeing his sister’s education being halted because the family simply couldn’t afford it. Hailing from the same village as Dilip Tirkey, Rohidas’ father would earn his money working on other farmers’ fields. The player’s first big break came when he was drafted by the Ranchi Rhinos for 16 lakhs in 2013 in the Hockey India League. Rohidas used the money to fund his sister’s education. He had been in and out of the national setup until his form and skill grew consistently in the past few years. He is currently regarded as the best first rusher – i.e. the first defender to rush towards the drag-flicker during a penalty corner – in the country.
Lalit Upadhyay (29, Forward) — Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh
The son of a cloth-shop owner, Lalit and his elder brother followed one of their cousins to the popular UP College ground. His natural dribbling skills and grace caught the eye of experts. Lalit was recommended to an academy in nearby Karampur, where a hockey-loving philanthropist and politician, late Tej Bahadur Singh, built a pitch between fields. Close to getting selected for the national team, without his knowledge, his name was used by a news channel in a sting operation on a hockey official. Almost 10 years and many rejections later, Lalit is an India regular. His father, these days, delivers couriers for a few banks in Varanasi.
Birendra Lakra (31, Defender) — Rourkela, Odisha
One of the vice-captains in the team, Lakra and his two siblings have played for the national men’s and women’s teams. The popular defender’s journey in the national setup has not been smooth. An anterior cruciate ligament injury in 2016 saw him ruled out of Rio Games. The comeback was slow and so was his speed. But the eight-month-long layoff was aided by a return to the national camp and guidance under physios and therapists. He came out of the ordeal a better player and has been instrumental in holding down India’s defence in large parts of the matches at the Tokyo Olympics.
Sitting (left to right) Dilpreet Singh, Hardik Singh, Simranjeet Singh, Mandeep Singh, Varun Kumar, Shamsher Singh, Vivek Sagar Prasad, Sumit Kumar, Nilakanta Sharma, Krishan Pathak
Dilpreet Singh (21, Forward) — Butala, Punjab
The youngster is no stranger to making big moves in his life. He took up hockey on the grass fields of his village when he was seven, inspired by his father Balwinder who served in the army. His talent was evident, and he made his way to the famous Surjit Academy in Jalandhar. He honed his skills as a prolific goalscorer and, after scoring nine goals at the Under-21 Sultan of Johor Cup in 2017, earned his senior team call-up at just 18. He scored twice at Tokyo, the consolation against Australia, and the opener in the quarterfinal against Great Britain.
Hardik Singh (22, Forward) — Khusropur, Punjab
The youngster comes from a long lineage of international hockey players. His grandfather Preetam Singh Ray, a former Indian Navy coach, introduced him to the sport. His father Varinderpreet played for the national team. An aunt, Rajbir Kaur, played four consecutive Asian Games from 1982 to 1994 and was the national team captain. An uncle, Jugraj Singh, the talented drag-flicker whose career tragically ended after a car accident. Then there’s another uncle, Gurmail, who was a part of the team that won gold at the 1980 Moscow Games. Hardik now becomes the second Olympic medallist in the family. He scored two goals, including India’s second in the bronze medal match.
His cousin Gurjant, also in the Olympic squad, was given a nickname for his reverse-hit skills. But it was Simranjeet whose backhand shot was India’s first goal in the bronze-medal match. He later scored his second and India’s third after combining with Gurjant. The cousins were also a part of the India team that won the Junior World Cup in 2016 in Lucknow. Coincidentally, Simranjeet and Gurjant were both on the scoresheet in the 2-1 win over Belgium in the final. He followed in his cousin’s footsteps by joining him the senior team, making his debut in 2018 at an invitational tournament in New Zealand.
Mandeep Singh (26, Forward) — Jalandhar, Punjab
The striker emerged on the senior national scene long before most of his colleagues from the 2016 Junior World Cup-winning team made the cut. The talented forward has been a consistent performer since he debuted in 2013, though he didn’t make the team that went to Rio in 2016. As a child, he was more interested in cricket, though he did start playing hockey when he was five. It was only years after continuously watching his brother play that he decided to take up the sport full-time. He was a part of the team that won bronze at the 2018 Asian Games, silver at the Champions League in 2018.
Varun Kumar (26, Defender) — Mithapur, Punjab
He dreamt of making a career in hockey since he was in Class 6. Three attempts to make a comeback from injuries, and support from a school friend and national team captain Manpreet Singh propelled Varun. The path wasn’t easy, as his father had to manage the house and Varun’s needs with the Rs 5000 he earned as a truck driver. He made his way to the Surjit Singh Academy and promised to be one of the best finds in Indian hockey. The family’s financial problems eased after his elder brother was inducted into the Armed Forces and are now likely to vanish after this historic bronze.
Shamsher Singh (24, Forward) — Attari, Punjab
Hailed by Graham Reid as an ‘Australian type of player’ and forged in the halls of the famed Surjit Academy, Shamsher started out as a midfielder and gradually moved towards the forward line. Hailing from the Attari district, a few kilometres separated from the India-Pakistan border, Shamsher struggled for hockey equipment from a very young age, and his father’s meagre earnings as a farmer were the only financial support. His first hockey stick would be repaired by his father using nails and tape and used for two years. He had won just six senior caps before leaving for Tokyo and his selection had triggered a huge debate. However, he has proven his critics wrong with some credible performances under his belt during the campaign.
Vivek Sagar Prasad (21, Midfielder) — Hoshangabad, Madhya Pradesh
Mentored by the son of Dhyan Chand, Ashok Kumar, he became the second-youngest player, at 17 years and 10 months, to debut for India when he played against New Zealand in 2018. His hockey career was buoyed by a move to Bhopal when he was 15 before a collarbone fracture threatened a premature end. The son of a school teacher, Prasad was patient during the recovery stage – a testament to his calm demeanour and his penchant for being an avid chess player. He led the junior team to the Youth Olympic Games silver medal in 2018. Now he’s got bronze at the senior level.
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Sumit Kumar (24, Forward) — Sonepat, Haryana
Born into a family that had no land and could barely scrounge up the money for two meals, hockey was a distant dream and yet one which he and his brother Amit shared. Even milk was a luxury that they couldn’t afford. Both brothers worked as cleaners at local dhabas in Murthal, Haryana, and would then head to hockey practice afterwards. This practice of working while continuing to quietly nurture the hockey dream led him to inter-district tournaments, a sports hostel in Gurugram and eventually the Indian national team. Nicknamed ‘James Bond’, he was part of the junior team that won the World Cup in 2016.
Nilakanta Sharma (26, Midfielder) — Imphal East, Manipur
Manipur has Mary Kom, it has Mirabai and now it has Nilakanta. The 26-year-old, standing at a diminutive five-foot-four, began his journey at the Posterior Hockey Academy in Manipur and then made the life-altering decision of moving to Bhopal at the age of 16 to continue bettering himself. Destined to be a part of the bigger picture from the juniors itself, he has blossomed into a quiet hard worker with the penchant to fill any hole in defence or thread in a pass to for attack. A coach during his time in Mumbai asserted Nilakanta’s a player that will not be noticed on the pitch, but his absence is felt when he’s not there.
Krishan Pathak (24, Goalkeeper) — Kapurthala, Punjab
The son of a Nepalese immigrant, who worked as a crane operator, Krishan used to help by moving debris in construction sites to help ends meet. Tragically, he lost his mother when he was 12, and then his father in 2016; both dying of sudden heart attacks, the latter six months before Krishan was to play at the Junior World Cup in 2016. He was not keen on playing hockey, but after his father insisted, he moved to the Surjit Academy when he was 12. The youngster has been an understudy for PR Sreejesh and is one of the players vying for the spot once the veteran calls it quits.
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For Reid, the medal holds a special significance. As Australia’s chief coach at Rio 2016, he could manage only a sixth-place finish, just two above India. So a medal in Tokyo marks a sweet redemption for him. He became India’s coach in mid-2019, hasn’t met his family since the pandemic began and made his small apartment inside SAI Bangalore his home. Known for his unique ways to prepare a team – he made Australia sit in a bus for 45 minutes longer to prepare the players mentally in case their bus lost its way in Rio, something that’s not uncommon at the Olympics – Reid is soft-spoken, good-humoured, great man-manager and tactically strong. In his two years with the team, he’s worked on the team’s consistency, instilled measured aggression and brought a certain amount of calmness, which was evident in the way the team defended under pressure against Germany on Thursday.
Robin Arkell (Strength and conditioning coach, 33) — South Africa
If India are able to outrun their opponents, Arkell is the man largely responsible for it. The South African, who did his MPhil in Biokinetics from Cape Town University, has been with the team for a little more than four years and during this time, he’s ensured India are ranked among the fittest teams in the world. Under Arkell, who has worked with South African rugby before coming to India, Indian players have been clocking an average yo-yo test score of 21 to 23, with some players going above 23. To provide a comparison, the BCCI has kept 16 as the basic benchmark for the cricket team. During the lockdown, he ensured the team’s fitness with a range of short but high-intensity drills, and worked with the half-a-dozen players who were Covid positive last year to make sure they weren’t affected physically after recovering from it.