Hardik Singh’s journey from the Khusropur village near Jalandhar in Punjab to the Indian national team has been slightly different compared to the rest of his teammates. Some may argue that he had an easier ride, given that he is a fifth generation hockey player in his family. For the rest, Hardik, along with players like Vivek Sagar Prasad, represent India’s future – and that it looks bright.

The defensive midfielder has been on the fringes of the national team for the last two years and during this time, he has managed to leave an impact. Be it decisive tackles or starting attacks from deeper positions, the 21-year-old has looked at ease.

Carrying a legacy onto the field might be too heavy for some, but not for the young midfielder. “I was introduced to hockey at a very young age since my father [Varinderpreet Ray] and grandfather [Preetam Singh Ray] played hockey,” Hardik told Scroll.in.

“I am very fortunate to be born in a family wherein there are so many hockey players. I get advice from all corners of the house and they have had a huge influence on my career.”

Hardik explains how the game was passed on in his family. Former India captain Rajbir Kaur is his aunt and she is married to Gurmail Singh, who was a part of India’s 1980 gold medal-winning campaign.

“My grandfather was a hockey coach in the Indian Navy, he was the one who started guiding me with the basics of hockey. I took to the sport almost immediately and started enjoying the practice sessions,” Hardik remembered.

But if there was a favourite in the family, it had to be acclaimed drag-flicker Jugraj Singh.

Hardik said: “Jugraj paaji has had a huge influence on me. He has mentored me every step of the way and continues to do so. I will be forever grateful to him for helping me attain all the success I have achieved in my career so far.”

As a 14 year-old, Hardik moved to Mohali Hockey Academy and quickly rose through the ranks. He had even represented India in the sub-juniors but opportunities at the top level eluded him. All of nineteen, a disheartened Hardik decided to pack his bags and leave for Netherlands. Once again, Jugraj came to his rescue.

“I thought about going to the Netherlands to play club hockey in 2017 when I felt that I won’t be able to make it big in the international circuit,” said Hardik, who was ignored by the senior team around the same period.

“But I remember it was a very lengthy telephonic conversation with Jugraj paaji, who explained to me why I should keep working hard in India. It’s all thanks to his advice back then that I am part of the Indian team set-up today. That’s the kind of impact my family has had on me.”

Hardik Singh in action | Image credit: Hockey India

Hardik is now a regular in Graham Reid’s setup but with India already well equipped in the midfield – which comprises of captain-vice-captain duo Manpreet Singh and Chinglensana Singh – his task is cut out. However, Hardik did manage to stitch a run of impressive performances in the FIH Pro League before it was called off due to the coronavirus outbreak.

“Yes, there is a lot of competition for places in the midfield, but that shows that our team is very strong,” Hardik said.

“Any side with a good bench strength can produce good results consistently. I just try to focus on my own game and not worry about the competition. I ensure that I am ready whenever I get an opportunity. I think ample opportunities are given to everyone, it’s about grabbing those and contributing to the team’s victories.”

Hardik has already been a part of a World Cup campaign and like the rest of his teammates, he was gearing up for the Tokyo Olympics before it was postponed by a year. But in the meantime, he has managed to catch Reid’s eye. Not only is Hardik now the destroyer of an opponent’s attack but is equally good at carrying the ball. One can so often see the young midfielder near the opposition’s circle, a dynamism that bodes well for the quick-passing, fluid Indian outfit.

“All midfielders have been given the role of being the first line of defense. We have to ensure that our opponents don’t penetrate into our half easily,” Hardik explains his role in the side.

“All of us support our defenders and give them options when we take the ball from the back and then ensure that there’s good communication when we midfielders take the ball forward. Communication is key when we are pressing and we have been getting better at it with each match we play.”

Despite the break in proceedings, Hardik is confident that India can hit the ground running straight away. He already has his eyes set on 2021. “With the Olympics being postponed, we will work even harder to become a much better team.

“I am trying to maintain my fitness levels by following the training schedule given to me by our Scientific Advisor Robin Arkell, and I also watch footage of our previous matches to keep myself motivated during this period.”

Motivation can hardly be on short supply for Hardik Singh as he looks to carry forward a family legacy. So far, he has looked every bit the player who can go the distance.