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During his heyday, goalkeeper Baljit Singh was considered to be one with lightning-fast reflexes. Quick to get off his line to avert any crisis, the Punjab player had a reputation of being the best between the sticks for India. But what unfolded on a dry and tiring day in July, 2009 changed the man forever.

Busy polishing his skills at the national camp in Pune for a four-nation tournament, the then Indian mainstay misjudged the speed of a golf ball as it pierced through his helmet and injured his right eye. An exercise aimed at improving his reflexes turned out be so serious that Baljit damaged the retina, cornea and lens of his right eye because of the direct trauma suffered due to the incident.


Former Indian goalkeeper Baljit Singh has come through the trauma of losing an eye.

Former Indian goalkeeper Baljit Singh has come through the trauma of losing an eye

He underwent an operation soon after. But the injury, however, drew curtains on Baljit’s international career as he was never considered for the national team again. Though he put up a number of commendable performances at the domestic level, nothing could convince the team selection panel as a poor peripheral vision meant that it was all over for the Chandigarh man.

“It was disappointing. I was looking towards making a comeback, but that never happened,” said the former Indian international, who was in Bengaluru for the Hockey India awards recently.

“Post the injury, I had put in a lot of effort and was performing well on the domestic front too. But then the injury hit, and it was a bad one. The worst thing about such injuries is that you’re lost overnight, no one knows who you’re or how good you’re,” he recalled.

While the regret of never returning to the national team still lingers in Baljit’s heart, the recovery phase taught him a important life lesson. Something he passionately described. “As soon as I was injured, I started thinking about my recovery regime. I was keen to get back to full fitness.

“And thankfully I had a legend in Nawab of Pataudi (Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi) who came ahead and not only promised me all the help that I would need, but also assured me that I will be back to being myself soon. And his message hit me hard. I was like, if someone like Nawab of Pataudi can recover from his accident, play cricket and lead India with one eye, what is stopping me from making a comeback,” he explained.

Though the doors to the national team closed on the ’keeper post the tragedy, that never stopped him from doing what he loves most — play hockey. The 34-year-old turns out for Indian Oil in the domestic circuit and is still one of the best in the business.

“I play for Indian Oil now. They have done a lot in ensuring that I play again. These people showed faith in me when I needed it the most. I’m 34 now and if am still playing — 6-7 years after the injury — it has got a lot to do with Indian Oil,” he continued.

In India the number one slot of a goalkeeper has changed hands more frequently than anywhere else. While a certain Adrian D’Souza took over when Baljit was sidelined, Bharat Chettri was the next in command when Adrian lost his spot for reasons other than hockey. And with PR Sreejesh out-gunning Chettri with his performances, it was not a surprise when the Kerala man was handed over the mantle post India’s dismal show at the 2012 London Olympics.

Now with the Rio Olympics just around the corner, Baljit was of the opinion that though the Indians are safe in front of the goal with Sreejesh being the first choice ’keeper, the team needed more guys to fight for the spot. “If you see Sreejesh has been phenomenal and if someone has to dislodge him, he’ll need to put in a great effort,” he said.

“But having said that, I would like that we get a ’keeper of his quality soon, because hockey is such an uncertain sport. You never know what could happen. Sreejesh could get injured and if such a situation arises, I would like to see an equally capable or a better guy take his spot.”

Note: The story was first published in Deccan Herald on April 10, 2016


Harmanpreet Singh 2.jpg

Youngster’s impressive run has earned him a senior national team call-up for the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup

Harmanpreet Singh has been dribbling away since his childhood. While back then it was with an imaginary ball using his father’s farming tools in the fields of Jandiala Guru township, a village on the outskirts of Amritsar, now it’s with his prized possession — the hockey stick.

Bachpan se hi aadat hai, ball ke saat khelne ki (It’s been a habit since childhood to play with the ball),” says a shy Harmanpreet. Though, back then, his antics brought him trouble for spoiling the crops, these very skills now make him one of the most sought after youngsters in the country. Known for his defensive stability and ferocious drag-flicks, Harmanpreet has been the toast of Indian junior team’s progress in the past few years. And he is now set to make a mark for himslef at the senior stage after being called up to the Indian side for the upcoming Sultan Azlan Shah Cup.

Having caught the eye of the selectors with a string of commendable performances at the 2014 Junior Nationals in Chennai, it didn’t take much time for the Punjab boy to make his way into the junior national squad. Picked for the Sultan of Johor Cup in 2014, Harmanpreet ensured that he made the most of the opportunity to make a mark for himself.

The 20-year-old was the fulcrum of his side, as he led the charge with his piercing drag-flicks and rock-solid defence. Harmanpreet netted nine goals to guide India to the title, bagging the player of the tournament in the process. This, however, was just a glimpse he had to offer.

The following year saw Harmanpreet once again display his magic on the field as the Indian Junior team won the Junior Asia Cup in a dominant manner. “I am very satisfied (with my career so far),” he said.

“The Sultan of Johor Cup was my first international tournament, and I am happy that I could give my best. Moreover, I continued my good run last season too. Asia Cup was a great moment for the whole team. Though I finished as the top scorer, I think the whole team played really well and we deserved the title,” he added acknowledgeing the important role of his team-mates.

Like many other from his hometown, Harmanpreet too was attracted to the game at a very early age. “I was in sixth standard when I attended my first hockey selection for an academy in Ludhiana. I spent a few months there before moving my base to Jalandhar (to the Surjit Singh Hockey Academy),” he recalls.

Having grown up seeing the likes of Dhanraj Pillay and Gagan Ajit Singh run riot, Harmanpreet started with the dream of being a striker. But his coach at the Surjit Singh Academy, Avatar Singh, saw something special and soon asked his ward to switch to the other end of the field. Though he initially hesitated, Harmanpreet had no choice but to budge.

“He was initially shocked,” said Avatar. “But then, if one believes in his coach and adopts to the changes the coach suggests, you grow as a player. And in Harmapreet’s case, you can see what he brings to table.”

While Harmanpreet’s presence in the defence cannot be disregarded, it’s his penalty conversion ratio that has drawn him to the limelight. And if you ask the man himself the reason behind this tremendous success, hard work is the reason he harps on.

“Every player at the camp has two sessions, but for us — the drag flickers — we have a third where we hit as many flicks as we can. I also work with heavier sticks and heavier balls, to get enough power behind every hit,” he explains.

Harmanpreet’s short corners are a mix of sheer power and shrewd placement. He also does a lot of trickery with his wrist to deceive the goalkeeper but it’s the vision of the target that he banks on.

“There are certain things I look to improve. Be it the power (of the stroke) or be it the direction. I try to visualise the target and decide that the ball needs to be there, irrespective of the bounce, speed or whatever,” continues Harmanpreet who looks up to the Indian international Rupinder Pal Singh and Britain’s ever-reliable Ashley Jackson.

With his long cherished dream of playing for the senior national team looking set to be fulfilled, one can only hope and wish that the upcoming prospect makes the most of this opportunity too as fulfill his yet another dream — winning a Olympic medal for his motherland.

Note: The story was first published in Deccan Herald on April 3, 2016