He almost quit hockey after losing his father in 2011 but India’s new-found attacking mid-fielder Raj Kumar Pal says he is now working hard to earn a spot in the country’s Olympic-bound men’s hockey team following a strong debut at the FIH Pro League.
The 21-year-old from Uttar Pradesh played on par with his experienced teammates during his dream debut against World Champions Belgium at the FIH Hockey Pro League in February. He was impressive in mounting attacks as was asked of him by coach Graham Reid.
However, nine years back he had to take a break from the sport after losing his father, who was his support system.
“I had joined the SAI Sports Hostel in 2010 itself but after my father passed away (in 2011), I was forced to stay with my mother who was alone as my brothers also were away from home at that time,” he said.
“The emotional turmoil after losing my father and difficulties at home had almost made me give up hockey but as fate would have it, I rejoined the SAI Sports Hostel in 2012 after my mother persuaded me.
“I really wish my father could see me play for India…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 2020 Tokyo Olympics,” he added.
In his debut match, Reid had entrusted Raj Kumar with the task of standing up to the Belgian defence, and he did not let this opportunity slip as with a number of moves surging forward coupled with feisty tackles, creating opportunities to score.
“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,” said Raj Kumar, who is currently part of the on-going National Coaching camp in SAI, Bengaluru.
Born in Karampur village in Ghazipur district of Uttar Pradesh, Raj Kumar had burst into the domestic scene during an U-14 tournament in Lucknow in 2010.
Raj Kumar started playing hockey at the Meghbaran Stadium 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 Senior National Championships in 2018.
“…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,” he said.
“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 pressurised,” he recalled.
After he impressed again during the 2019 Senior National Championships, Raj Kumar was called-up for the national camp in Bhubaneswar last year.
“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 have to work on.
“Seniors in the team are also very encouraging and don’t make me feel like a new comer in the team which has helped me tremendously mentally as well.”