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Harmanpreet Singh relishes senior role playing with the kids

Hockey India

The year 2016 has been kind to 20-year-old Harmanpreet Singh, and the defender hopes to cap off what has been an eventful year with a good finish for India at the junior World Cup in Lucknow, ahead of the quarterfinal against Spain on Thursday.

Blooded into the junior team in 2014 -- he fondly remembers how India won their first match in Johor Bahru against New Zealand when he put on the India jersey for the first time -- his consistent performances over the next couple of years saw him fast-tracked into the senior Indian setup, and he responded with consistent performances at the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup in Malaysia and the Champions Trophy in London, where his performances helped India win silver, and earned him the applause of hockey experts around the world and also the best junior player of the tournament award. His good run of form took him to the Olympics, where India's campaign started brightly but ended at the quarters.

"Whenever you take things lightly in hockey, you can slip up. In hockey, there is no team that is good or bad; we just tend to label them in our mind," Harmanpreet told ESPN in the lead up to the junior World Cup. "You learn as you play that you cannot take any team lightly. What you have to do is stick to your basics, and the structure that works for you."

Harmanpreet has added a lot of variety to that structure, with his ability to play as a deep defender and also attack from either flank. What has set him apart from his peers, and no doubt helped his elevation to the senior level is his ability to score off penalty corners. In his early years as a hockey player, at the Punjab University academy in Ludhiana, he never paid attention to this key aspect of modern hockey. It took a switch to the Surjit Hockey academy in Jalandhar and a chance meeting with two senior trainees who were regulars at India camps that brought him down that route.

"When I went to the Surjit academy, it was Gaganpreet Singh and Simranjeet Singh who guided me and asked me to try out taking drag-flicks. They have helped me a lot," said Harmanpreet, while acknowledging how that initiation has converted into a specialisation thanks to his teammates for the Indian team, VR Raghunath and Rupinder Pal Singh. "Drag flicking came easy at the domestic level, but once you get into the India fold you have to give extra time to practising your drag flicks, and in that Raghubhai and Rupinderbhai helped me a lot. I would go up to them and sometimes they would come to me and point something out."

Harmanpreet, who will know next month if he becomes the first Indian to win the FIH Rising Star of the Year award for men's hockey, put the Indian junior team's recent string of good performances down to their improved fitness levels.

"All the players will tell you that they don't enjoy the running, but the plus point is that if you train properly, then it makes the game easy. Fitness hai toh sab kuch hai (you can only play well as long as you are fit)."

Harmanpreet has already scored two of India's 11 goals as they topped Pool D to set up a last-eight clash against Spain, and the confidence in how far this team might go came out when he talked about his team's greatest strength.

"As a team, we help each other and stay together. We are a very fit team and we have worked really hard. We have had camps, toured Spain and Australia and played a number of good games. We are combining well and whenever we play a team, anybody coming into the team knows exactly what they need to do."