On December 18, after the dense Lucknow fog took until the afternoon to clear, coach Harendra Singh, captain Harjeet Singh and their team accomplished ‘Mission 2016’, which they had set out for in 2014. In fact, that WhatsApp group of the 18-member squad is still in place. Though the frequency of notifications popping up in the group is limited to special occasions, the mutual respect between members of that close-knit squad remains the same through thick and thin.
Two crafty goals from Gurjant Singh and Simranjeet Singh saw India beat Belgium 2-1 to win the final. It was India’s second summit climb atop junior men’s hockey, after the triumph by ‘Class of 2001’. Before the knockouts, India had topped Pool D with an all-win record, beating Canada (4-0), England (5-3) and South Africa (2-1).
In the quarterfinals, India defeated Spain 2-1 and then eliminated Australia in the semis via a penalty shootout (4-2) to set up a gold-medal match with Belgium.
The heartening outcome of the triumph was that while five players from that champion team had already made their senior-team debut before playing the Junior World Cup, ten more from the group managed to achieve that in the last four years to take the total number to 15. Nine of those players continue to be part of the current core group.
It shows how a successful feeding system can help sustain growth, which is one of the reasons why India have managed to climb up to No. 5 in the FIH rankings.
|PLAYER||DEBUT SENIOR EVENT||OPPONENTS||SR. INTL CAPS|
|Harjeet Singh (c)||2013 men’s Asian Champions Trophy||China||50|
|Vikas Dahiya||2016 South Asia Games||Bangladesh||19|
|Krishan B Pathak||2018 Four-Nations Invitational Tournament, NZ||Japan||48|
|Dipsal Tirkey||2017 Belgium Tour||Belgium||24|
|Varun Kumar||2017 Belgium Tour||Belgium||83|
|Gurinder Singh||2017 Sultan Azlan Shah Cup||Great Britain||58|
|Harmanpreet Singh||Japan’s India Tour 2015, Test matches||Japan||117|
|Nilakanta Sharma||2017 Belgium Tour||Belgium||57|
|Manpreet Singh (Jr)||2017 Sultan Azlan Shah Cup||Great Britain||6|
|Sumit||2013 men’s Asian Champions Trophy||Great Britain||65|
|Gurjant Singh||2017 Belgium Tour||Belgium||45|
|Ajit Kumar Pandey||2016 South Asia Games||Bangladesh||4|
|Arman Quershi||2017 Belgium Tour||Belgium||15|
|Simranjeet Singh||2018 Four-Nations Invitational Tournament, NZ||Japan||47|
|Mandeep Singh||2013 Hockey World League, Round 2||Fiji||157|
(Stats: Hockey India – as of Dec 18, 2020)
THE HIGHS, THE LOWS & THE MEMORIES
Four years on, as the world grapples to get out of the grip of the coronavirus pandemic, Harendra too is recovering from a Covid-19 infection, having returned a negative result on the test conducted earlier this month.
The weakness in his voice was easily discernible, but the mention of the 2016 victory lent a lot of strength and cheer to his tone.
“I still consider it a team of 22 and not 18. There was so much competition for places in that team. Hardik (Singh) couldn’t make the cut, Dilpreet (Singh) was standby, plus Suraj Karkera,” he said talking to Timesofindia.com.
Slightly unaware of the approaching anniversary of a historic feat, captain of the 2016 team, Harjeet Singh, was in Jalandhar — enjoying the festivities of current India captain Manpreet Singh’s wedding to his long-time Malaysian girlfriend Illi Najwa Saddique.
“Sat Sri Akal paaji,” Harjeet said answering the call.
Harjeet’s story took a complete U-turn over the last four years. Once considered to be Sardar Singh’s heir-apparent as a playmaker, the Kurali boy’s blossoming career hit a nadir when he was dropped from the senior national camp.
Harjeet had already made his senior-team debut, at the 2013 Asian Champions Trophy, before leading the junior World Cup team; but he couldn’t sustain the rising graph of his career, especially after losing focus amid the euphoria of a Punjabi movie made on his rise from a village boy to a national hero.
He realises what all went wrong, which is perhaps why he lapped up the chance to play the European Hockey League for the Dutch club HGC.
“I am giving it my best shot; the aim is to make a comeback. So continuing to do hard work and trying for another overseas stint in club hockey,” said Harjeet talking to Timesofindia.com.
He has the experience of 50 senior international caps under his belt.
From the team perspective according to Harjeet, the high point of these past four years has been the chance for the players to feature in the senior national camps.
“By winning the Junior World Cup, the players got a chance to come into the senior camp and most went on to be selected for the team,” said Harjeet.
However, three players — Vikramjit Singh, Santa Singh and Parvinder Singh — weren’t lucky to make the cut and are still looking to make their senior India debut.
10 players – Made senior India debut after winning the JWC.
5 players – Had already played for the senior team before the JWC.
3 players – Couldn’t make the senior cut.
“Those memories are something that will stay with us forever. It was our aim to win the Cup. Harendra coach saab’s Mission 2016, which he began in 2014, was successful,” said Harjeeet, who is employed with Bharat Petroleum.
“Our WhatsApp group from that campaign is still in place,” he added with a smile during his conversation with TimesofIndia.com.
The four years between that day in Lucknow and now also saw Harendra once again being appointed coach of the senior team, though he failed to replicate the success of the junior team with the seniors at the 2018 World Cup.
“The low point in these last four years was, of course, the 2018 World Cup quarterfinal defeat against Holland and Sardar Singh getting dropped when I was the coach of the team, despite being one of the best at that time,” said Harendra.
“The high point was creating history in terms of most goals scored ever by a team in an Asian Games campaign (2018).”
But it’s the warmth between the group that is closest to Harendra’s heart.
“I cherish the respect and regard that I always get from that team. We are always in touch. That Whatsapp group is still there, but I got popped out when I changed my cell phone recently.
“I have asked Parvinder to add me back,” Harendra further said to conclude the chat with TimesofIndia.com.
India’s 2016 Junior World Cup Squad: Harjeet Singh (c), Vikas Dahiya, Krishan Pathak, Dipsan Tirkey, Harmanpreet Singh, Varun Kumar, Vikramjit Singh, Gurinder Singh, Santa Singh, Nilakanta Sharma, Manpreet, Sumit, Parvinder Singh, Gurjant Singh, Armaan Qureshi, Mandeep Singh, Ajit Kumar Pandey and Simranjeet Singh