Harmanpreet Singh crouched, just outside the shooting circle on a hockey pitch, putting his weight on the stick, eyes firmly fixed on his teammate who will inject the ball in a few moments. Singh calmly stands in that position, plotting and visualising what he will do next.

Once the ball is pushed, he springs into action, advancing forward, collecting the ball. And in one swift move with practiced bravado, he unleashes a ferocious drag-flick towards goal.

For almost a decade since he made his debut for the national hockey team, the sight of the Indian captain’s penalty corner routine has been feared by opponents.

He will be expected to feature in that crouched, menacing, position once again when the Indian team begins the away leg of the 2023-24 Pro League season on Wednesday.

Since he made his debut for the senior team in 2015, the 28-year-old from Timmowal village in Punjab has become a vital cog for his side. It was only after the team won the bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 that he was promoted as the full-time captain. But he had been pulling the strings from his defensive position for many years.

“When you are playing as a fullback, you have to be calm on the ball,” he said to Scroll. “You have to control the pace of the game, communicate with the players, especially without the ball. Getting in the tackles, organising the defensive shape, you handle all that.”

His skills and vision become all the more important with the new style of play head coach Craig Fulton has brought to the team.

The South African coach prefers a strong defence with aggressive runs towards the opposition goal coming on the counter. And in Singh, who has become a master of the scooped pass – a long and accurate lob from deep in his own half – the Indians have a player who can turn defence into attack with a single hit.

But more than his distribution skills, his defensive discipline and even his leadership qualities, it is Singh’s renowned drag-flicking that sets him apart. He did get a little help though when he first broke into the senior team.

Singh had created a stir in the hockey world as a junior with his remarkable goal-scoring abilities in penalty corner routines. He had shown the ability of placing the ball exactly where he wanted it, and with immense power. But when he came into the senior team, he found guidance in the VR Raghunath and Rupinder Pal Singh – both renowned drag-flickers and defenders.

“I knew that after a year or so I would be retiring, so we felt that we needed to make space for [Singh] and I kept talking to him,” Raghunath recalled, to this publication, explaining that he took it upon himself to help Singh settle into the team.

“I used to tell him that he needs to be mentally calm. Being a drag-flicker and a fullback, that mindset is important because of the decision making. You are the last defender, so the mistakes have to be minimal. And you also have the opportunity to score from a penalty corner, so you need to be sharp.”

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Singh has remained astute in the position, scoring 182 times across 211 international matches – the most prolific active player for India.

As captain, however, he has played an important role in helping his teammates thrive.

“I have never seen Harmanpreet as a captain, but instead, as a close friend,” said India defender Sumit, who has played with Singh since their junior days. “He has a way of making players feel comfortable. Even if it is a junior player who has just made it to the team, Harman will treat them as if they have been with the senior team for four-five years.”

Welcoming the new players into the team is one thing, he has also needed to stay in shape to continue being a valued asset for the team.

Singh asserted that international hockey has become faster and more physically demanding since he started playing. Accordingly, he has made it a point to put in the hard-yards to stay up to the mark.

“As a freeman [fullback], you have to work a lot on fitness,” he explained. “As much running as the centre forwards do, you have to match that. You have to have a connect with all the players. Direct balls, sideline to sideline running, for all these things you need to be fit. I’ve been working a lot on that and I feel that I have improved on that.”

Singh, a shrewd defender, is also known to be a menace to his own teammates when they train together on one-on-one drills. But, he added, that the players find the lighter side to it after the sessions end.

“When we play our small practice games, it can get quite intense,” he said. “So later we tease each other, saying things like ‘Aaj tujhe goal nahi maarne diya [I didn’t let you score today]’

“I probably have that friendly rivalry with everyone, but that’s a good thing. It’s a part of building trust in the entire team,” he added.

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The FIH Pro League matches in Europe come at a time when the Indian team is putting in the finishing touches to their preparation for the Olympic Games. The pressure is palpable, and especially since the team managed to end a 41-year medal drought when they won bronze at the Tokyo edition in 2021, the expectations are high.

“The responsibilities have gone up and the expectations have increased,” Singh said. “That’s a good thing, because only once you achieve something good do appreciate how hard you had to work to get there. That is what we have learnt.

“That was a nice, historic memory for us. But after that the responsibilities go up and we have to work even harder to achieve those,” he added.

Singh looks to the future now, but he holds a special memory of his return home after winning the Olympic medal.

He grew up helping his parents on the family farm, working hard on his chores that sometimes included driving the tractor. All the work, he said, helped toughen him up for the heavy workload his sport demands. “Free roti thodi milti hai [You don’t get food for free],” he said, laughing.

This came at a time when hockey was barely played in Timmowal or in any of the nearby villages. But, he explained, that all changed when he broke into the senior team.

When he returned home from Tokyo and visited the gurudwara, the children in the village gathered there with their hockey sticks to welcome him.

“That was an emotional moment for me,” he said. “I felt that that was an achievement for me. I felt that I was doing something good.”

In July, the Indian team will step out onto the Parisian turf. And they will hope that with Singh at the helm, crouched, plotting, waiting calmly at the edge of the shooting circle, they can repeat their Tokyo triumph.