In the span of a year, Araijeet Singh Hundal has been a part of Indian junior men’s hockey team winning squads at the 2022 Sultan of Johor Cup and 2023 Junior Asia Cup. And yet, if you ask the lanky forward, he would say that the only tournaments he has played in are the 2021 FIH men’s junior World Cup and the recent Asia Cup.

“Maine ye tournament life me khela hi nahi hain. Junior Asia Cup mera second tournament hain junior World Cup ke baad (I don’t consider I have played Sultan of Johor Cup, Asia Cup is only second tournament),” Hundal told Scroll after India were crowned Junior Asian Champions for the fourth time. India defeated Pakistan in the final, with Hundal scoring one of the two goals.

The Sultan of Johor Cup last year, however, was a tournament to forget for Hundal. He had gone to Malaysia being one of India’s key players having scored five goals in the 2021 FIH men’s Junior World Cup. Even though India would go on to clinch the title after a thrilling penalty shootout win in the final against Australia, Hundal came away not really feeling like a winner having scored just two goals in the tournament.

“I honestly don’t know what happened to me,” Hundal recalled. “Every player goes through a phase where nothing goes their way. I had that period of two three months where I was just down. I had pressure mentally and that got me down. I was making mistakes in the matches and that would weigh on my mind. I started overthinking and realised I was taking in too much. I had to learn how to keep calm.”

Top-scorers at Men's Junior Asia Cup 2023

Team Player Field goals Penalty Corners Total Goals
 Pakistan Abdul REHMAN 7 2 9
 Japan YASUDA Kumpei 8 1 9
 India Hundal Araijeet Singh 8 0 8
 India Singh Angad Bir 7 0 7
 Japan TANAKA Tsubasa 6 1 7
via TMS

His downbeat mood did not go unnoticed with coach CR Kumar noticing the drooping shoulders of his tall forward. Kumar told Hundal to reset in the off-season, promising to help the youngster upgrade his game once he came back.

“Kumar sir told me that I was not at my best and told me to prepare better next time. I rested and reset with my family. The new year was coming up and I just prayed to God that I could play well. I became doubly serious with my practice, resting and fitness,” Hundal said.

Going back home also meant going back to his hockey-crazy family. Hundal’s father, Sardrar Kuljeet Singh Hundal, is among five brothers who all got jobs through the sport. Hundal Sr dreamt of donning the blue of the Indian jersey and was even selected in the national camp in 1999 but missed out owing to financial constraints. It has thus fallen upon the 19-year-old to fulfill his father’s wish.

So naturally, even if he wished to take a break from the sport, Hundal could not.

“At one point I just realised that it would be better for me if I just forget about ever playing in the Sultan of Johor Cup,” Hundal said. “Whenever someone would talk about it, I would excuse myself and go away. When I think about it, I feel a bit sad,” Hundal said.

“That was the mindset I had when I would practice. When I started telling myself that I never played Sultan of Johor, I started enjoying playing hockey again. When the pressure is kept aside, mazaa aata hain hockey khelne me. It was freeing in a way and I just kept playing from there and into the Asia Cup.”

When he got back to the camp, Hundal found that Kumar and the coaching staff had come up with some tricks to help the forward regain his scoring touch. That meant coming up with patterns and grids to help him.

“He’s a player who is quite tall and has a good physique,” Kumar told Scroll. “We tried to understand why he could not score a goal. So we thought of giving him a lot of scoring opportunities inside the circle. We created lot of grids for him to score from different angles, from deflections, from the rebound off the goalkeepers and also trying to stay close to the goalkeeper during penalty corners and scoring from those.”

It is safe to say that Kumar’s efforts bore fruit as Hundal ended up being India’s top-scorer with eight goals at the 2023 Junior Asia Cup.

“No penalty stroke or penalty corner goals. All of them were field goals,” said a beaming Kumar.

Araijeet Singh in action against Japan

Standing at 6’2”, Hundal’s tall and lanky figure stands out in the Indian squad. The teenager believes that his physique will prove to be advantageous to his future.

He said, “India currently does not have a tall and lanky striker. There are strikers who are short and have good physique but none who are tall. I have the advantage of having a longer wingspan and good speed because of my long strides.”

There’s another advantage that Hundal possesses which could give him an edge while competing for a place in the senior squad in the future. His drag-flicking ability. Drag-flickers generally tend to be tall and muscular defenders like Harmanpreet Singh, Gonzallo Peillat and Alexander Hendrickx. Therefore, to have a player capable of playing in attack while still being deadly from penalty corners becomes an asset, just like the Belgium’s Tom Boon and Australia’s Blake Govers.

“Height and weight helps. If you are built a bit heavier, then it helps because as you push your weight down, it just helps (the momentum),” former Netherlands player and drag-flicking legend Bram Lomans had told Scroll in a masterclass on the craft.

“The momentum is also bigger if you are a little bit taller. You need to be flexible. Not all tall guys are flexible. If you look at Rupinder Pal Singh, he was my size, but he is also very flexible. If you are (flexible), then you have an advantage because you can get more of your body behind the ball. Hendrickx is also taller. Govers is more strong than tall maybe.”

While Hundal has the height which is the hallmark of many drag-flickers, what he doesn’t yet possess, is their muscular build, something which he aims to work on during the off-season.

Having won the Junior Asia Cup, Indian youngsters will soon embark on their quest for a third world title when they take part in the 2023 FIH men’s junior Hockey World Cup to be held in Malaysia in December. Leading the line, playing in his fourth – or rather – third international tournament for India would be Araijeet Singh Hundal.