Harmanpreet Singh is rarely fazed by the pressure of being India’s biggest goal scoring threat. For him, that pressure is part and parcel of the game.
“Apna journey jaise start hui thi, waise hi chal rahi hain. (My journey has been the same just as it was when it began),” is how he put it in an interaction with Scroll.in at SAI, Bengaluru.
But it is undeniable that in the last couple of years of his journey, he has taken the step up from good to elite.
The Indian men’s hockey has been on the rise, ending a 41-year wait for an Olympic medal in Tokyo, winning silver at the 2022 Commonwealth Games as well as finishing third in the 2021-’22 FIH Pro League.
Leading India’s charge has been Harmanpreet, who has not only been marshalling the defence but is also the country’s biggest goal threat from penalty corners. Since Rupinder Pal Singh stepped aside, the 26-year-old has been India’s undisputed No 1 drag-flicker, finishing the Pro League last season as the top-scorer with 18 goals. He was also the second-highest goalscorer in the 2022 Commonwealth Games with nine goals. His exploits on the pitch earned him a second FIH Men’s Player of the Year award, the first person to win it back-to-back.
And in the latest of honours next to his name, Harmanpreet Singh has now been named captain of the Indian team for the FIH Men’s hockey World Cup to be held in Odisha in January 2023.
Hockey World Cup: Harmanpreet Singh named India captain, Amit Rohidas his deputy in 18-member squad
The 26-year-old defender, who has crossed the 150-cap and 100-goal milestones in his senior career in this run, now has a golden opportunity to lead from the front and deliver at the World Cup on home soil.
Here are excerpts from Scroll.in’s interview with Harmanpreet Singh:
You have had a very fulfilling year, not just with the team, but personally as well. How would you describe your season?
I have learnt a lot and achieved a lot this year. The achievements have been memorable mainly because every player waits for major tournaments and when you perform and achieve at these tournaments, it feels very good.
You are currently one of the best drag-flickers in the world. How have your drag-flicking skills improved this year?
When we have team meetings, the coach and players say the same thing which is to be consistent. Of course I don’t want to speak of myself, there are teammates and staff who push the player. It is because of them that my performance at PCs is improving. Only after the pusher and the stopper do their job can I flick it. It is a collective effort. If you convert the opportunities you get in big matches, it is good for me and the team. I always tell myself that whenever I get an opportunity, the team is trusting me so it becomes my responsibility to deliver.
Do you ever feel burdened by the weight of these responsibilities?
Well, your only responsibility is to play on the field. Everyone knows that and everyone fulfills their responsibilities well. When you are on the pitch in front of a big crowd, you need to fulfill your individual responsibilities. The team will only do well when you do well individually. So there is no pressure as such. Apna journey jaise start hui thi, waise hi chal rahi hain.
In the Pro League, you beat out many other good drag-flickers to become the top-scorer. How does that feel?
It is an amazing feeling. When you are playing against the best teams in the world and scoring goals, it is a memorable moment. To score 18 goals was special. To do it (score from a PC) once is easy but to maintain that level is something that I focus on. It’s not like last year was good so I can ease up a bit this year. It’s not like that. Every match is important and it has an effect on the team’s ranking. Ye saara mind me rakh ke khelte hain (I keep all of this in mind when I play). Next year I want to do better than this year.
The silver at the Commonwealth Games was the highlight of the year for Indian hockey. Given that we missed out on a medal in 2018, how good was this win?
The CWG medal is a big achievement for me because last time in 2018 we lost the bronze medal match and the semifinal before that. As I said before, you cannot take teams for granted in major tournaments. We have learnt our lessons and are implementing them. Everyone has ups and downs in their life but how strong you can be and how well you can push your teammates is important. Whenever we have a major tournament, all the players tell each other not to just be participants. Our main goal is to win a medal for the country. You are representing India and you have responsibilities to fulfill.
What did it feel like to win the FIH Men’s Player of the Year Award again?
To win player of the year in back-to-back seasons feels amazing. But as I said before, even for individual awards, the contributions of the team and coaching staff is immense.
If you had to rank being the top scorer in Pro League, the Commonwealth Games silver and the FIH Player of the year award, what would that look like?
For me, all of them are important. I always think that whether it is achievements, wins or losses, it’s all in the past. If you win something, it becomes a good memory for you to look back on. But if things don’t go your way, like it did in 2018, it stays with you. Even if you win silver today, you cannot forget that 2018 loss. For me, this is done, what’s next now? What are my future goals now? Of course winning medals is important and scoring goals is also good. But for both, you need your teammates.
A very diplomatic answer.
You cannot assign a number to your achievements because they are not on the same platform. To win a silver at CWG is a big thing. To be a top-scorer against top teams is a big thing. To be player of the year is also a big thing. But if I had to chose, I will always go for the silver in Birmingham.
India beat Australia after a long time in the recent tour. How important were those five matches Down Under ahead of the World Cup?
It is a good thing that you can play one of the top teams in back-to-back matches before a World Cup. We played them at the Olympics and the Commonwealth Games but we could not give our best. But speaking about this tour, we got to learn a lot of things and the matches had been neck-to-neck. Even there you can think about the 7-4 loss but if you watch the match, both the teams created almost the same number of opportunities. But you can learn to finish those chances only in the big matches.
Overall, our matches have been good. The confidence in the boys has also built up. ‘We can also score four goals against Australia,’ that feeling is the best point for us. In future tournaments when we are against the best teams, the ability to convert those rare opportunities will be important. A good player is the one who converts those 50-50 chances. We have learnt all this in Australia.
Two-time Olympic gold medallist Bram Lomans conducted a drag-flicking coaching camp for the team. How was the experience training with him?
He was a player himself and had his own style and has also seen many players over the years. On the first day itself he told us that we will not be changing our styles because that is what we have grown up with. He would observe our styles and suggest different things we could do. When you finish, what should you be looking for. What should your pickup be like. How quickly should you be approaching the ball, because all those extra seconds make a big difference in beating the first rusher. When the ball is mis-trapped, how should you adjust and what angle do you take to score.
Speaking about mis-trapping, we noticed against Spain in the Pro League and Australia, you scored twice after the ball was mis-trapped. Maybe we are just clutching at straws here but is that a tactic you have come up with to throw off the defence?
No, no. That is not a tactic per se but we do make plans for when the ball is mis-trapped. When that happens, we decide where the ball needs to go for it to be easy for us to score. Usually, we go to the left and we try and keep extra players there.
2023 begins with the World Cup and then we have the FIH Pro League as well as the Asian Games. What are your goals for the upcoming year?
The first aim is to keep the World Cup trophy here. The boys have put in a lot of hard work as you have seen in the last couple of days. They know how important this World Cup is for us because you don’t know when the World Cup will next be held in India. The aim will be to take it match by match and then play and then win the final.