Since that evening in 2017, when Sanjay and Maninder Singh looked chuffed about their title-winning campaign in the School Asia Cup, they have come a long way — so much so that both are playing the ongoing Junior World Cup in Bhubaneswar. And not just playing, but almost scorching the field.
Central midfielder Sanjay has scored consecutive hat-tricks in the two matches against France and Canada. In doing that, his draglicks on penalty corners look to have promised India another Rupinder Pal Singh from the CHA.
The iconic Rupinder, who was part of India’s bronze medal-winning team at the Tokyo Olympics, is also a product of the CHA and recently announced his retirement from the sport after a decorated career.
“I haven’t met or interacted with Sanjay often, but whenever I briefly saw him, he looked like a very down-to-earth boy with proper focus,” said Rupinder talking to TimesofIndia.com from his home in Faridkot.
“With him doing so well at the Junior World Cup, there is every chance he will soon break through into the senior team,” he added.
With Rupinder hanging up his stick, Harmanpreet Singh is now India’s leading drag-flicker with Varun Kumar as backup. The senior men’s team coach Graham Reid has been in Bhubaneswar at the Junior World Cup, overseeing the junior team, and Sanjay’s stick is producing the perfect wizardry to impress the Australian.
“He always had good height and a strong build, which you usually associate with village kids,” said CHA coach Gurminder about Sanjay, who hails from Hisar in Haryana.
“We gradually introduced him to drag-flick and strength exercises related to that, like for the thighs and shoulder. To strengthen his grip, he climbs up a rope in 4-5 repetitions. And he practices around 300 to 400 drag-flicks daily. Such is his sincerity that he comes to the ground 2-3 hours before the scheduled practice.
“We (CHA coaches) have worked a lot on him. Like, for example, we used to shoot his videos whilte training and then show it to him later, analyse those,” Gurminder added.
With a family background in farming, hockey is the sole focus of many kids like Sanjay at the Chandigarh Hockey Academy. In fact, players like Sanjay and Maninder have revived the legacy of CHA.
Things didn’t look good when the third batch of the CHA graduated. Rupinder, Dharamvir Singh, Gurjinder Singh and Gurjant Singh are from the first two batches of the academy and had set the benchmark high. But the standards fell thereafter, until batch four arrived, which included Sanjay.
Sanjay went on to lead India at the 2017 School Asian Cup and then represented the country at the 2019 Youth Olympics in Argentina. Thereafter, he has been a regular at the junior India camps. Now he is the vice-captain of the Junior World Cup squad.
Coach Gurminder feels leadership is something that comes naturally to Sanjay.
“Sanjay has been with us (CHA) since he was 10 years old. He is someone who guides the team on the pitch. The coach is only on the sidelines, but Sanjay is actually a coach-like figure on the turf, a responsible player who carries the team along with him. He has been the best player in various tournaments, across age-group school nationals and nationals, since moving into junior India camps.”
But coming from modest backgrounds largely, the sole aim for these kids — who are enrolled in CHA between 8 and 10 years of age — is to secure their future through the sport.
Back in 2017, when this author asked the then 16-year-old Sanjay this question, his reply was along similar lines.
“My parents have never stopped me from playing hockey. In fact, they always ask if I need anything here away from home. I would like to fund my training myself after I move out of CHA, and a stipend will be the best way to do it until we complete our graduation and hopefully represent India to get a full-time job,” he had said.
A regular stipend with a department team is still something he is looking for, but that’s not on his mind at all until December 5.
After the thumping 13-1 win over Canada, he called coach Gurminder and said, “We will play the final.”
That road, though, is not going to be easy; and the next hurdle is Poland on Saturday — a must-win game for a place in the quarters.