With the Hockey India League 2017 reaching its business end, Dabang Mumbai have finally broken their shackles and emerged as favourites to bag the coveted title this season. After two disappointing seasons that saw them finish second last in 2016 and last in 2015, Dabang Mumbai are on top of the table with 33 points in nine games.

They have lost just two games this season and have already qualified for the knockout stage of the tournament. The sudden turnaround in fortunes is being credited to Australian coach Jay Stacy and his team of young budding hockey players, who play like a unit.

However, the strength of the side lies in its young Indian players and one of the standout performers has to be defender Harmanpreet Singh. The 19-year-old, who was part of the Junior World Cup-winning squad last year, has been the important link between Mumbai’s rock-solid defence and lightning quick offensive attacks.

Talking to Scroll.in, Singh said that the home matches laid the foundation of this season’s thrilling run for Mumbai. “We started off really well this season. The first five matches were on the home ground, which gave us a lot of confidence. We played all the five matches really well, in which we won three and drew one. The confidence we got owing to these matches gave us the push we needed. Steadily, we were working on our positives and also made sure that we worked on aspects of the game that needed to be improved. Compared to last year, we are playing really well. With the likes of Robery Kemperman, Sander De Wijn, among others have also made a really difference.”

Talking about their consistency, Singh said, “It started with Mumbai and then we travelled to Ranchi, where we didn’t perform well. Then, we analysed our performances and found out the areas in which the mistakes were happening. We worked on them and then we won against Kalinga, then Punjab, then Delhi and our confidence grew. We will continue to play like this and work as a unit and continue to win.” Talking about his own game, Singh said, “I think it has been okay. Have scored a few goals and [coach] Jay Stacy has been great help. We worked on our game and it has been a good run.”

A change in strategy

Dabang Mumbai have opted for a different tactic this season and have scored numerous goals on the counter-attack or via quick passing, giving their opponents minimal time to react. They aren’t using the long passes until required, which is different from the traditional approach.

“The ball travels faster than the player and obviously the opponents will face a problem if we use such a tactic,” Singh said. “It is not that we aren’t using the long passes. We are passing the ball quickly and constantly trying to create chances. The movement we see an opening we go for the long pass if required. It is just about playing in a simple manner because that will guarantee you results.”

With the likes of Florian Fuchs, Robbert Kemperman, Emmanuel Stockbroekx and other senior players in the team, Singh has worked hard on his games, especially penalty corners. “The foreign players have a different approach towards the game, including their structure of play,” he said. “Whenever we sit and talk together, we learn a lot. They also quiz us about our game and technique. We also talk to the senior Indian players as well. Everyone shares their knowledge and I gain from both sides. It is a win-win situation for me. I have really worked on my penalty corner because the shot has become very important in today’s game. If you beat the first defender, then the chances of scoring a goal are high so that is why I have been working on it since we assembled as a team. Our understanding is perfect as a team.”

So who is the better coach?

Playing under different coaches often leaves a player confused owing to their contrasting styles. However, for Harmanpreet, playing with Junior Hockey India coach Harendra Singh is more comforting. Why? Is Stacy that difficult to comprehend? Maybe. “Actually, the league goes on only for a month and Harendra Sir has been with us for more than one-and-a-half years,” said Singh. “So I would prefer Harendra Sir. However, Stacy Sir’s tactics aren’t difficult to understand. It is just a different way of looking at things so it required time. We share whatever we learn from both coaches. Our game is improving regardless.”

Triumph over adversities

Born in Amristar, Punjab, Singh’s father is a farmer and mother a homemaker. He has an elder brother, who never played a sport. Singh used to love driving their tractor and would go for a spin on their fields, helping his father out. “I always loved hockey. It was always a struggle for equipment. But I never used to tell my parents and I never liked asking for things. We weren’t a well-to-do family,” he said.

However, Singh never quit the game and in the end, it gave him the rewards. “I never thought of quitting hockey. If it wasn’t for hockey I wouldn’t be the person I am today. My parents love watching me on TV and call me immediately after winning a match and tell me to continue playing the game.” Even after winning the Junior World Cup, Singh wants to win medals for India and also become like his favourite player Rupinder Pal Singh. “Rupinder Pal is my idol. I want to continue to play the sport and give my 100% towards it. I want to do well for the country and win medals,” said Singh.

Finding his flair

Singh was a natural defender according to his teammates and he considered taking up the role seriously after his seniors urged him to. “I am a defender because I was told I was good at it by my seniors. They were even impressed by my drag flick and said I was good at it. I worked really hard to perfect the drag flick and continue to do so because I want to make it a potent weapon in my armoury,” said Singh.

He added that his temperament as a player has also improved. “Earlier, I used to play with an individual mindset. I just wanted the ball and I wanted to score. Now I have become team player. If you play for the team then the feeling is positive. If you have an individual approach then the game isn’t fun and you will end up losing most of the time.”

Harmanpreet the singer?

Singh said he does have a weakness for Punjabi songs and, after retirement, which is still 20 years away according to him, he will release his own album. “I always wanted to be a hockey player. If I wasn’t a hockey player, maybe I would have studied and become a singer maybe. I love Punjabi songs and listen to them most of the time. Music has to be on whenever possible. Even on the way to the ground or practice or at home. It is a dream to take out a music album even though I sing very badly.”