It is the second quarter of the bronze medal match between India and Germany in the men’s hockey event at the Tokyo Olympics. Having ended the first quarter 1-1, India fell behind after the Germans struck twice in quick succession. The men in blue were staring at the possibility of ending yet another Olympic Games without winning a medal.
With three minutes left in the half, Hardik Singh pounced on a loose ball off a penalty corner to score and spark India’s comeback. Manpreet Singh’s side would go on to win 5-4 and end a 41-year wait for an Olympic medal in hockey. It wasn’t the first time Hardik had come up clutch for India in Tokyo either. In the quarterfinals against Great Britain, the Punjab player mounted a superb solo counter attack cutting right through the British midfield and scoring India’s third in a nervy 3-1 win.
In a tournament where the likes of PR Sreejesh, Harmanpreet Singh and Rupinder Pal Singh shone for India, Hardik’s two goals proved vital too.
However, if not for a position switch in 2018, Hardik wouldn’t have perhaps become a mainstay in the Indian team. And who knows, perhaps India’s wait for a medal could have gone on longer.
Coming from an illustrious hockey family featuring 1980 Olympic gold-medal winner Gurmail Singh, former women’s hockey team captain Rajbir Kaur and the former India defender Jugraj Singh, Hardik was destined to be a hockey player. His father Varinderpreet Singh and grandfather Pritam Singh also played hockey but did not get the chance to don the national colours.
“Hockey was always my first option; there was never a second option,” Hardik said with a chuckle in a conversation with Scroll.in at the national team’s camp at SAI Bengaluru. It was just meant to be.
“It was my grandfather’s wish that there be another Olympian in the family. He wanted my dad to become a national hockey player, but he couldn’t do it because he had to take up the responsibility of supporting the family. When I was born, my grandfather decided to cultivate an interest in hockey in me early on. He was a hockey coach in our village Khusropur and he would take me along every evening for training. During vacations, I would go twice, morning and evening. Be it local trials or state trials, I would go with him,” the 23-year-old said.
Like Gurmail and Jugraj, Hardik started out playing on the wings in defence. In 2012, Hardik took up hockey seriously and joined the Punjab Institute of Sports Academy at Mohali before moving on to Surjit Hockey Academy in Jalandhar.
Switching it up
In 2016, Hardik was the vice-captain of the Indian team which won the U-18 Asia Cup. Along with captain and future senior team defender Sanjeep Xess, Hardik marshalled the Indian defence. Despite losing their opening match 4-5, India would bounce back to lift their third title with Hardik named player of the match in the final against Bangladesh.
His performances at the U18 Asia Cup caught the attention of the then national junior men’s team coach Harendra Singh who named him in the probable list for the 2016 Junior World Cup. Although he did not make the cut, the time he spent in the junior team camp under Harendra changed the course of Hardik’s life.
“When I joined the India team camp, I used to play right back and left back like my uncles Gurmail and Jugraj. It was Harinder sir who told me to play in centre midfield. The credit for me becoming a midfielder goes to him,” he said.
Like many athletes before him, Hardik wasn’t too pleased being told to switch positions. Struggling to change his style of play to operate in the midfield, Hardik would often ring up his parents to vent.
“There were a few difficulties when I initially switched positions. I would call up my parents complaining to them that they’re making me play in centre midfield and not right back. My parents would reassure me that the coaches probably saw something in me which made them make that decision. So I should take that in a positive way and work hard,” he recalled.
“Watching how my seniors prepare on and off the pitch helped. I would then study practice matches and international matches that I played and tried to figure out where to improve.”
Two years later when Harendra Singh took over as coach of the senior men’s team, Hardik was one of a clutch of young players brought into the side.
“When he became coach of the senior team, he called me up for the Asian Champions Trophy. He reaffirmed that centre midfield would suit me better than defence. He told me to trust myself and my game and encouraged me to play with my instincts.”
A regular player off the bench in India’s victorious Asian Champions Trophy campaign, Hardik would continue to deputise for Manpreet Singh, Akashdeep Singh and Chinglensana Kangujam at the 2018 Hockey World Cup.
An injury to Chinglensana saw Hardik feature more frequently as India came second in the 2019 Sultan Azlan Shah Cup, topped the FIH Men’s Series Finals in Bhubaneswar and booked their spot at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Once reluctant, Hardik soon realised that playing in the centre of the park suited his playing style more and has proven his mentor Harendra right by flourising in the Indian midfield.
His days playing in defence has made him remain composed and calm enough to find the perfect openings to break opposition play and launch India’s attacks by jinxing past players. In the quarterfinal in Tokyo, it was Hardik who ran with the ball to the attacking third to set up Gurjant Singh’s goal before scoring with his late solo run.
“I think controlling the game and dictating the tempo is something that is a part of my natural game. It is the role of the defensive midfielder to dictate the game from left to right. Behind the scenes, DMFs do not get enough credit for the way they control the game. I just enjoy playing with that pressure,” he said.
Having established himself in the Indian squad, Hardik went into the 2020 season confident that his performances over the previous two years had earned him a seat on the plane to Tokyo. However, it took some tough love from coach Graham Reid for the youngster to learn not to take his place in the Indian team lightly.
“In 2019, Chinglensana was injured and we were down to just three DMFs. So I became complacent and thought that my place in the team is cemented. In the 2019 Europe tour when we played Spain and Belgium, coach Reid said that I needed to get out of my comfort zone and be ‘uncomfortable’ to improve my game.
“Chinglensana came back from his injury before the 2020-21 Pro League but I still thought that my place was assured because he had just returned and so won’t be getting chances that soon. But that didn’t happen and he came back to the team immediately,” Hardik said.
The Punjab player did not feature in India’s first two matches in the Pro League against the Netherlands in January 2020. It spurred him to put in the hard yards in training and prove to Reid and the team that he is capable.
“The two matches I didn’t play taught me a lot and made me a better player. That is where my mind-set strengthened and taught me that my place in the team is not to be taken for granted. There is no assurance that I’ll always be on the team because there are other players also working equally hard. I’ve to work hard each and every day.
“That is when I realised that I need to push myself every day. Back then, Covid-19 wasn’t that big and the Olympics were just a couple of months away. That made me realise that I need to show the team and coach Reid that I deserve to be in the Olympics squad. I would watch video clips of our training sessions and the next day would make sure that the earlier mistakes weren’t repeated.”
A podium finish to remember
The postponement of the Tokyo Olympics from 2020 to 2021 due to the pandemic proved fortuitous for Hardik as he would get back in the Indian side and feature in all six of India’s remaining Pro League fixtures. His performances ensured he became the second Olympian in his family. While his mother was happy just with her son becoming an Olympian, Hardik went to Tokyo with nothing but a medal in sight.
“My mom always used to tell me ‘Tu sirf Olympic khel.’ (You just play in the Olympics). No one was expecting me to win an Olympic medal. I used to tell my parents: Everyone can play in the Olympics. But only a few can come back with medals.
“That medal has done a lot for us. After Tokyo, there are high hopes. The expectations have increased a lot. If you look at our villages and towns, the craze for hockey has increased. Earlier only 20-30 people used to come to our academy. Now more than 100 people descend on it,” he said.
For any other hockey player, winning an Olympic medal would perhaps be a crowning achievement. Hardik, however, feels his journey with the Indian team is far from over. For the youngster, the Commonwealth Games represents another opportunity to catch up with his illustrious family members.
“The Commonwealth Games will have a lot of good teams like Wales, England, Australia, New Zealand and my aim is to come back with gold. These four years have taught me how to keep on learning, how to deal with losses, and what your attitude should be after a win. But, I haven’t yet won a gold medal with India. Meri bhookh toh gold medal ki hi hai (I hunger for gold).”