In a dramatic penalty shootout to decide the champions of Sultan of Johor Cup, India’s junior hockey team captain Uttam Singh went second in the sudden death scenario. There had been nothing to separate the two sides in four quarters of hockey, as both India and Australia ended reuglation time tied at 1-1. There had been nothing to separate the sides after the first five attempts in the shootout either.
The pressure was immense. Up stepped Uttam for the second time on the night (he had won a stroke with his first). A miss would have seen his side face heartbreak. He dribbled forward and as he rounded the goalkeeper, he slipped. For a millisecond there, it looked like the chance had gone. But he stepped up quickly and found his footing... and more importantly, the back of the net.
He looked up to the sky in relief. There was no celebration yet, but for now, the 20-year-old had ensured his team stayed in the hunt.
“When I used to be the junior in the junior team, if I did a mistake, toh sorry se kaam chal jaata tha (I can get away with a sorry),” Uttam told Scroll.in. “But now I am the captain and a senior in this team, I have to make fewer mistakes. If I make mistakes, then what will I tell others? This was what I was thinking during the tournament, that I should make fewer mistakes.”
And that perhaps summed up his reaction then. A few minutes later, when goalkeeper Mohith Shashikumar saw an Australian attempt fly wide, the celebrations began in right earnest. The Indians quickly formed a mountain of blue... and jumping on the top of it was the captain. India had not just reclaimed the Sultan of Johor Cup, they did so defeating Australia. And that meant something extra.
“It was a very proud moment for all of us, because we hadn’t won the trophy since 2014 and after winning, it was a very happy and fun feeling,” he said.
“Actually, [regarding the celebrations at the end] our India team, in the Commonwealth Games final, had lost out to Australia. They also celebrated a lot when they won against India. We had a sort of revenge in our mind that when we win, we will celebrate like this. Because they are a great team and it will be a match full of fight. That’s why I felt really good after winning the match. We were thinking then that our revenge is complete and that’s why you saw such an ecstatic celebration from us.”
Uttam Singh scored two goals overall in the tournament and won the player of the match in the opening game against Malaysia. In the final against Australia, he produced a pass from the right flank to create an attacking chance out of nowhere as Sudeep Chirmako opened the account. On that day, India reclaimed the prestigious junior trophy.
From Karampur to India camp
Uttam, who has already made his senior debut when he was part of the Asia Cup squad this year, started playing hockey around 2010 before he turned 10. It all started at the Karampur Hockey Stadium.
“It was a lot of struggle, even buying hockey shoes was difficult,” Uttam recalled. “Kahin na kahin se mil jaata tha, gharwaale dilwa dete the. The late Thakur Tej Bahadur Singh used to run this academy. He used to give shoes and all for free. He used to like me a lot when I was a kid. He used to teach me, he helped me so much. But when I got to the hostel (SAI Lucknow) the problems starting getting solved slowly. From money, to learning my skills, he helped me a lot even when I went to hostel, around 2015.”
While the move to the hostel meant the struggle to play hockey wasn’t pronounced, the breakthrough did not come easily for the diminutive forward. Ask him what his biggest challenge as a hockey player was, his mind goes back to the days he had to train and train, without knowing where his big chance was coming from.
“I came to the India camp only in 2019. From 2011 to 2018, I always practiced hard but I wasn’t playing well enough to get selected. Mera selection nahi ho pa raha tha. Around 2018-19, I started playing in the Nationals, but before that I wasn’t getting selected anywhere. The rest of the hostel boys used to play, then I used to think I need to work harder than them.
“I used to sleep very little. Whenever I got time I took the hockey ball to practice... in the afternoon, even late in the nights. Practice, practice, practice. Even when I thought I won’t make it... I didn’t stop then too, I kept going. And next year I got into the camp.”
One of the standout aspects of watching Uttam in action is the speed with which he moves on the turf... but it is not something he always possessed. He had to work hard to improve his speed.
“Raj Kumar Pal, senior now, used to be in the hostel with me. He motivated me a lot. Tum apna kaam aur mehnat karte raho, denewala uparwala hai (you do the hard word, God will take care of the rest). He used to take me with him and teach me as well, dodging and tackling... passing... he taught me a lot. I didn’t use to have all these skills when I started but I practised,” Uttam said.
In the early moments of the final quarter against Malaysia in the opening match of the Sultan of Johor Cup, Uttam received the ball just outside the circle, moving forward at speed. The scoreboard read 4-1 in India’s favour and he had space in front of him to go forward and find the back of the net. But without a moment’s hesitation, he passed the ball forward to the left to draw the goalkeeper out to find a player better placed. When that didn’t pan out, he hassled to keep the ball alive and then won a Penalty Corner for his side. It was a couple of minutes of forward play that could be best summed up as selfless.
That too, he had to learn the hard way.
“When I started playing, I didn’t use to let go of the ball easily. Selfish tha thoda,” he recalled with a hint of a sheepish grin. “I have been scolded many times by my coaches, seniors... self game nahi khelna hai. And with everyone telling me that, I slowly left that behind me. Started passing more. Tej Bahadur Singh and Indra Dev, my coaches... they all played a part in it.”
For an aspiring player, getting into the hockey camp along with the best group of players in the country is a big step. It not only means they are a step closer to donning India’s blue, but they get to rub shoulders with the best among the country, and see how they operate. For Uttam, more than getting to interact with the senior pros, it meant he could just watch and learn.
And one of those players he admires is the legendary PR Sreejesh. He, in fact, wears the goalkeeper’s number on the back of his shirt when he gets the choice.
“I have had 16 for the most part but when I played for senior team at the Asia Cup I had 43. I like 16. It was my choice. Sreejesh bhai to dekh ke mein socha ki, woh 16 pehente hain. Woh itne acche khiladi hain, mujhe woh pasand hain. Isiliye choose kiya,” he said.
The junior players train with the seniors during the camp, there are even matches organised between them when needed. Coach Graham Reid keeps a close watch on the bench strength and for the junior players, it’s a chance to learn from the best in the country. Ask Uttam who he looks to for inspiration in the senior team, and the answer is not surprising.
“Manpreet bhai,” he said, referring to India’s captain who led the country to a bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics. A good place to seek inspiration for a youngster who is evidently being groomed as a leader too.
“He tells me the importance of basics. ‘Zyada pass karke kheloge toh aur bhi accha kheloge (the more you pass and play, they better you will get). The first four-five minutes of the match, don’t concede but look to score. If you start the match well, you will finish the match well,’ is what he tells me,” Uttam added.
For now, Uttam – who has his eyes on the junior World Cup next year to improve the team’s fourth placed finish last time around – has a simple aim of making it to the senior team on a regular basis. Having had an eventful start to the journey, that would be the next logical step for the pacy forward who packs a punch. Lofty ambitions can wait, it is one step at a time.