When Jugraj Singh hits the ball, it stays hit. Just ask Argentina’s Tomas Santiago and the South African pair of Estiaan Kriek and Siyavuya Nolutshugu. In their Pro League matches against India, neither of the three goalkeepers had time to react before Jugraj would find the back of the net with his powerful drag flicks.
When the 25-year-old was selected in the team for the 2021-22 Pro League, many drew comparisons with the older Jugraj Singh who also made his way into the Indian team on his drag flicking ability back in 2001. However, while his namesake broke into the national team as a teenager, the younger Jugraj had to wait for his chance.
This Jugraj Singh, now part of the Commonwealth Games 2022 squad, announced himself on the big stage by scoring a hattrick against South Africa in February. He scored another two (excluding one which was ruled out after review) against Argentina a month later. All five of them came from penalty corners and what catches your attention is the speed and accuracy with which Jugraj sends the ball hurtling towards goal with his drag flicks.
Ask him how he hits the ball with so much power and Jugraj just shrugs his shoulders and cracks a smile to downplay his skill.
“I don’t know myself. I always think that how much ever I practice, it is not enough. What happens when you keep doing something for a long time, you become better at it. I just keep on practising my drag flicking over and over again,” he told Scroll.in during a conversation at the men’s hockey camp at the Sports Authority of India’s Bengaluru centre.
In January this year, when chief coach Graham Reid spoke about Jugraj’s inclusion to the Pro League squad that toured South Africa, he had said, “Jugraj is very quick when he drags flicks and he scored quite a few goals in the Nationals. I’m quite excited about him, if we can get some of the speed that he has with his flicks and make him a little more consistent with where where he puts them. Quite an exciting time I think.”
While Harmanpreet Singh – who finished as the leading goalscorer in FIH Pro League this season – remains the go-to man for the Indian team when it comes to short corner routines, Jugraj’s speedy flicks have indeed provided a new dimension.
“When he joined the Indian camp, he played in practice matches against the senior team and he scored there. Then they checked the speed of his drag flick and they found that he had the fastest drag flick in the country, even faster than Harmanpreet and Varun,” Ajay Kumar, Jugraj’s coach in the Indian Navy team told Scroll.in.
Jugraj hails from from Attari village, Amritsar near the India-Pakistan border. He is the second player from the village to play for the Indian team after Tokyo Olympian Shamsher Singh. The duo played with each other throughout their childhood. While Shamsher, who plays as a forward broke into the Indian team in 2019, Jugraj had to bide his time.
Jugraj took up hockey at a young age following in the footsteps of his older brother Sarabjit. After their father, who worked as a coolie at the Wagah-Attari border couldn’t continue to work due to his health, Sarabjit had to leave hockey and take up his father’s job. But he made sure Jugraj continued playing the sport.
“It was my brother who told me to play hockey when I was in fourth grade. For three-four years, I played in my village. After that, I joined Baba Uttam Singh National Hockey Academy in Khadur Sahib in Tarn Taran district. I started out as a forward. But, when I went for my trials at Khadur Sahib, my coach noticed my height and decided to train me as a fullback,” he recalled.
A couple of years later, still a teenager, Jugraj was recruited by Punjab National Bank to play for their junior side. It was there that Jugraj realised his calling as a drag flicker.
“At Khadur Sahib, we played on grass as there was no turf. So there was no scope of learning how to drag flick. At PNB, we had turf pitches there and my senior Lakhwinder Singh taught me how to drag flick,” he said.
Honing his talent in the Navy
Despite playing well for PNB’s junior team, Jugraj could not progress to the senior side. In 2016, the Indian Navy came calling for him and the next five years proved to be fundamental in his journey.
Jugraj represented the Services team at the Senior Nationals for five successive years and was a vital cog in Kumar’s Indian Navy team that started making deep runs in various domestic tournaments. And in Jugraj, they had their star drag flicker.
Kumar described Jugraj as eager and driven who would spend hours on the training field. Even as a youngster in the PNB team, Jugraj would stay back after hours to watch the senior team practice, especially the drag flicker routines. In the Navy, Jugraj would go on to fine tune his technique and become deadly from inside the shooting circle.
“Our practice used to be in the morning and the ground was far from our hostel. So after our training was done, we would hang around to watch the senior players practice and ask them for tips,” Jugraj said.
“He worked really hard on his drag flicking, often training thrice a day. He looks thin but is incredibly strong. He takes a lot of care as to what to eat, how to rest, he meditates as well. He looks after his body well,” Kumar said.
“Since he had a lot of power, we worked a lot on improving his accuracy. There are particular areas in goal which the goalkeeper can’t reach easily. If you aim near the keeper’s left leg, that will wrong foot him and you will score. If you aim for the right top, it will whizz past the first rusher and go in.
“So he worked a lot on focusing on these areas. He always had speed and worked hard on his accuracy. His accuracy is set and not many will be able to stop him.”
Initially signed on as a defender, Jugraj’s tendency to attack from the back often frustrated Kumar. A skilful dribbler possessing high stamina, Jugraj would often go on marauding runs which would leave the defence vulnerable. Add to the fact that he more often than not played entire matches, Kumar realised that Jugraj would burn out soon if not managed properly.
“He worked a lot on improving his skills. But as a drag flicker, he was playing in defence and running so much, he would tire out quicker. And he would play the whole 70 minutes for the Navy. I switched him from defence to centre half in the midfield. For the last three seasons, he played as a centre half for the Navy,” Kumar said.
“When we selected him for the services team, we put him in defence but told him not to run as his main area was drag flicking. So he finally started to focus on that.”
With Jugraj as their lynchpin, the Navy won the 2018 Guru Tegh Bahadur Gold Cup, the 2019 Bombay Gold Cup and finished as runner-up in the 2019 Bengaluru League, while the Services team won the 2020 Senior National Championship.
“If you look at any of the last domestic tournaments in the last three-four years that he participated in, he would be either best scorer, best player, best midfielder or best defender of the tournament, or multiple of those,” Kumar said.
Despite impressing on the domestic circuit, an India call up eluded Jugraj in 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic struck. With all tournaments suspended, the Navy player grew despondent. There were also days when he questioned his future in hockey.
“His morale had gone down when he wasn’t selected earlier. I used to tell him that if he performed well at the next tournament, we will try and you get into the team somehow. So he would pick himself up and perform in different tournaments and come back with many awards,” Kumar said.
“When you think that you deserve to play in the senior team but don’t get that opportunity, obviously doubts will creep into your mind. You sure question your future in hockey. But those thoughts only stay for a couple of days,” Jugraj added..
“The thing is, as a hockey player, if you don’t play hockey for a couple of days, you will always end up wanting to play again. That’s how hockey players are. The same mind which was telling you to quit two days ago, now wants you to go out and play hockey. I always believed that there would be a chance. You might get it today or tomorrow or maybe day after. Seeing good players, you feel you will get a chance,” he added.
Cementing his place in the Indian team
Now a part of the Indian team, Jugraj’s immediate goal is to perform well at the Commonwealth Games and be a part of Reid’s side for the World Cup. And his Navy coach says, Jugraj would need to shed his tendency to play individually and do what the team requires of him. Kumar believes that given his ward’s versatility, it would not be a surprise that Jugraj could also feature in the Indian midfield, something that Reid too said in January.
Jugraj has had to bide his time to play for India. But for now, all he wants to do is make the best of the opportunity he has been given.
“I don’t look back. Some players get the chance early, some get it late. Woh samaah chala gaya aur naya samaah aa gaya hain (The old times have passed and now new times are here).”