“If you take the shortcut, Pakistan is just 1km from our house. So from a very young age, we have stayed away from shortcuts.”
Sarabjit Singh is describing the place India’s ‘fastest drag-flicker’, Jugraj Singh, calls home. But the statement also captures his younger brother’s long road to the national team.
Attari is largely known for two things: as the last Indian station on the rail route connecting Delhi and Lahore; and the flag-lowering ceremony at the Wagah-Attari crossing. In quick succession, though, the tiny village in Amritsar has produced two national team players. The first was forward Shamsher Singh, who won an Olympic bronze in Tokyo. On Tuesday, Jugraj – a versatile player who can play the roles of centre-half, full-back and drag-flicker – is set to make his debut when India face France in their opening FIH Pro League match of the season.
— Hockey India (@TheHockeyIndia) February 7, 2022
Son of a coolie who worked at the border, Jugraj grew up in surroundings where his family lived in a constant state of fear. “It’s the uncertainty, more than anything else,” his mother Paramjit Kaur says. “On most days, nothing would happen. One could never say, however, when chaos would replace calm.”
During skirmishes at the border, the family would be forced to vacate their home and seek refuge elsewhere. There were times when shells would fly over; and occasionally, a boundary wall would get demolished by a mortar hurled from across the border, as happened a few years ago.
The situation has been ‘okay’ in the last few years. It’s the 25-year-old Jugraj who has now forged a reputation for launching cannonball-like drag-flicks. It’s the reason he got a call-up for the national team, in fact.
Tinge of nostalgia
“He is India’s fastest drag-flicker at the moment,” proclaims Ajay Kumar, the coach of Indian Navy, for whom Jugraj plays on the domestic circuit. “His speed was checked at the last national camp. I am not aware of the exact speed, but I was told his flicks were the fastest.”
There’ll surely be a tinge of nostalgia when Jugraj takes the field, especially if he lines up for a penalty corner. In 2001, the ‘original’ Jugraj Singh of Indian hockey made his international debut while still in his teens. A crack drag-flicker, who stood out not just because of the chequered bandana he wore but also because of his stick-skills, speed and bravado, Jugraj’s career was cut short in 2003 after a life-threatening road accident.
Nineteen years later, a player with the same name and key attribute is set to make his maiden India appearance. And like Jugraj senior, his namesake, too, took his first serious steps on the hockey field at an academy in Jalandhar.
“Attari is a small place and we are a family with very limited resources. So, to become successful, there’s no choice but to move out,” Sarabjit says. More so, because Jugraj did not grow up in hockey-crazy surroundings.
Jugraj, Sarabjit says, was around four years old when he first picked up a hockey stick at a ground near their house, where a few village boys played. He got spotted by coaches at a local college, where he honed his skills before moving on to a bigger academy in Tarn Taran, roughly an hour away from Attari. In 2011, Punjab National Bank selected the then-teenager for a stipend of Rs 3,500 a month and four years later, Jugraj joined Indian Navy for a salary that was 10 times higher.
“I saw him play for PNB in the domestic leagues and he looked like a promising upcoming player,” says Kumar, the Navy coach. “Since PNB had international players in their team, they weren’t offering him a job. So, we approached Jugraj and he accepted our offer.”
In the years that followed, Jugraj became renowned for his goal-scoring abilities from penalty corners and consistently finished among the highest scorers in national-level tournaments. “The Murugappa Cup, the Bangalore league… he was the best player in both those tournaments. At the senior nationals in Jhansi (2020), he was the best defender and highest goal-scorer,” Kumar says. “In the last few years, he has won individual awards in every tournament he’s played.”
Kumar and Sarabjit both are convinced Jugraj deserved a call-up much earlier. But they also are conscious of the high level of competition within the Indian team. In the last few years, there has been a glut of penalty corner specialists in the Indian team, led by vice-captain Harmanpreet Singh.
Post-Tokyo, after Rupinderpal Singh retired from international hockey, a slot opened up and even though there were some impressive performances by under-21 players at the Junior World Cup, Jugraj finally got the nod because of his consistent performances at the nationals, ‘where he scored quite a lot of goals,’ chief national coach Graham Reid says.
Most of those goals were from drag-flicks, which captain Manpreet Singh said were ‘unique.’ Penalty-corner specialists usually take a couple of quick steps towards the top of the ‘D’ before lunging forward to take the drag-flick. Jugraj, however, almost sprints towards the ball before unleashing a powerful shot.
“It makes him very deceptive. His approach is very unusual because of the sprint. And secondly, he is slender like a centre-forward, but still is able to generate a lot of power,” Kumar says. “Since he is naturally very strong, we have worked mostly on getting his angles right over the years,” Kumar says.
Speed is one of the first things even Reid noticed, along with his versatility. “I am quite excited to see if we can get some of his speed with the flicks and get him a little more consistent with where he puts them,” Reid says. “He is also a very competent midfielder and defender as well.”
— Hockey India (@TheHockeyIndia) February 7, 2022
From nationals to Pro League, a tournament where the world’s best teams go head-to-head, will be a big step up for Jugraj in terms of intensity and quality. Sarabjit, though, is confident his brother will handle the transition smoothly after waiting for such a long time for this opportunity.
“His journey started in Attari, went to Tarn Taran, Jalandhar, Bangalore and all over India just to get good enough to get selected for India,” Sarabjit says. “I am sure he will show that he deserves this chance.”
It’s been a long journey for Jugraj. But then, he’s always stayed away from shortcuts.
FIH Pro League: India vs France, 9.30pm, Live on Star Sports Network