Sukhjeet Singh had a few mountains to climb before he could get into the senior India men’s hockey team.

In 2018, then 22, Singh was included in a probables camp for the senior team. But just as he had started to hope to break into the squad, a freak back injury resulted in temporary paralysis of his right leg. From getting close to earning his first India cap, the dream had been put on hold.

It took him four years to get that call-up. And when he took to the field against Spain, on his India debut in the 2021-22 FIH Pro League season, he managed to find the back of the net.

Since his debut, the 28-year-old forward has played for the national team at the 2023 FIH Hockey World Cup in Bhubaneshwar, and was a part of the gold-medal winning teams that played at the Men’s Asian Champions Trophy 2023 and the Hangzhou Asian Games last year.

“I had said earlier that we would win the gold medal and we did just that,” said an ecstatic Singh, in conversation with Scroll.

The Asian Games gold medal meant that the Indian men’s team had booked a direct berth for the upcoming 2024 Olympic Games in Paris, France.

Now, as he prepares for the European leg of the 2023-24 Pro League, Singh is ready to once again show why he was touted as an exciting young talent back in 2018.

Crucial to the new tactics

Under new India head coach Craig Fulton, who took over in May 2023, the team has changed its approach. The focus is now on holding a strong defensive shape while keeping a keen eye on launching counter-attacking moves towards the opposition goal.

Singh’s role and skillset is crucial to the South African coach’s plans in attack. The striker’s pace along with his ability to make a defence-splitting pass has been a boon for the team. It was something that was noticed by his childhood coach Gurdeep Grewal as well.

Grewal scouted Singh at the Mohali Academy in 2008, working with the player for seven years.

“Endurance and strength can be developed later,” explained Grewal.

“But Sukhjeet was blessed with speed. I only had to work on his sharpness and tackling, but his game sense was very good from the start.”

While Singh was shy and reticent when speaking about his achievements and growth, Grewal asserted the striker should have featured in the squad for the 2016 Junior World Cup. He recalled that the player put a lot of pressure on himself after not making it to the team despite a good show at the Junior Nationals that year.

Long journey to the national team

But Singh had the capability of making it in the national team. Which is why Grewal and another coach from the academy, Manmohan Singh, got in touch with him when he was out with injury in 2018.

“He used to play on the grassy grounds in the village tournaments in Punjab, so we told him to stop doing that [after he recovered],” recalled Grewal.

The coaches wanted him to focus on getting back into the India team, but realised Singh was still lamenting being overlooked for the 2016 Junior World Cup.

Eventually, Singh’s father – a former player on the domestic circuit – got involved in paving the road back into the Indian camp.

Singh started to play for the Punjab National Bank team, and his performances at inter-departmental tournaments caught the attention of the Hockey India scouts in 2022.

“My father has always been very supportive of me because he wanted me to do what he couldn’t – join the Indian team,” recalled Singh.

From helping him practise as a child, to bringing him food when he was staying at the academy hostel, Singh and his father share a close relationship. This came to the fore in 2018 as Singh returned home in tears because of the injury.

But they measured each step on the way to recovery before starting the journey back to the national team. There was a great sense of joy when he finally broke into the squad, and he received a hero’s welcome when the Punjab-native returned home after the Asian Games win.

“[My friends and family] watched the [Asian Games] final and then came to pick me up at the airport in Amritsar,” he said with a smile. “They make fun of me, but also tell me I’m doing well in every match.”

From doubting himself after not making it to the junior team in 2016, Singh has become mentally stronger. He explained how he approached the team psychologist Paddy Upton, who joined the team in July 2023, ahead of the Asian Champions Trophy and Asian Games.

According to Singh, Upton conducted regular group sessions and was on hand to schedule individual sessions should any player require it. Singh immediately signed up, citing his “overthinking” as one of the issues he wanted to work on.

Singh is now an important member of the national team, but he is not yet a sure-shot for the 16-member team that will play at the Olympics.

For now, he will bank on his skills and recently-acquired clear thinking mindset as he dons the India blue at the Pro League. His performances there, perhaps, could earn him a spot for Paris.