When Uttar Pradesh lad Raj Kumar Pal made his India debut against World Champions Belgium during the FIH Hockey Pro League in February, the confidence he exuded and intensity with which he played was on par with his experienced teammates. At no point in the 60-minute game did he look like a newcomer in the team.
Chief coach Graham Reid had entrusted Raj Kumar with the task of standing up to the Belgian defence and the attacking midfielder did not let this opportunity go as he impressed with a number of moves to surge forward coupled with fiesty tackle, creating opportunities to score.
“My focus was on executing the role that coach had entrusted me with. Playing against the world champions in my first international match was the biggest moment of my life and I wanted to ensure I lived up to the expectations,” stated the 21-year-old.
Born in Karampur village in Ghazipur district of Uttar Pradesh, Raj Kumar burst on to the domestic scene during an U-14 tournament in Lucknow in 2010. A prodigy of coach Tej Bahadur Singh in Meghbaran Stadium where he began playing hockey alongside his two elder brothers at the age of 10, he was part of the SAI Sports Hostel, Lucknow when he was spotted by Hockey India High Performance Director David John during the National Championships in 2018.
“I was called for the national camp for the first time in 2018 but it took me a while to get used to the training techniques and game sense. I used to feel a lot of pressure initially because the hockey we played back home was very different from what the senior team played.
“But I was constantly encouraged by Lalit bhai (Upadhyay, India forward also from Uttar Pradesh) who made me understand that it was important to stick to ‘simple hockey’ and not feel pressured,” recalled Raj Kumar, who is the first from his village to don the India jersey.
After he impressed again during the previous edition of the National Championships in 2019, Raj Kumar was called for the national camp in Bhubaneswar last year.
“Since then, I have constantly been with the team. Reid is very patient and explains to me what exactly I need to focus on and how I need to cope with the demands of hockey at this level. Though I did have awareness about the fitness required at this level, understanding small things like not to hold the ball too long and general tactical awareness is something I had to work on.”
“Seniors in the team are also very encouraging and don’t make me feel like a newcomer, which has helped me tremendously. Lalit also kept encouraging me to speak with other midfielders and forwards in the team. So, my on-field communication has improved,” explained Raj Kumar.
While his aim now is to stay focused and work towards earning a spot in the India Team for the Tokyo Olympics, Raj Kumar feels the absence of his father — who passed away in 2011 following which he took a break from hockey.
“I had joined the SAI Sports Hostel in 2010 itself but after my father passed away, I was forced to stay with my mother who was all alone as my brothers also were away from home at that time. The emotional turmoil after losing my father and difficulties at home made me almost give up hockey. But as fate would have it, I rejoined the SAI Sports Hostel in 2012 after my mother persuaded me,” stated Raj Kumar.
“I really wish my father could see me play for India because he was my biggest support to take up the sport. But his encouraging words continue to give me strength. My only aim now is to give my 100 per cent for the team, stay focused in every day training and try to make the squad for the Tokyo Olympics,” he added.
First Published: Wed, March 18 2020. 16:03 IST