In the early days of his appointment as coach of the Indian women's team, Harendra Singh struggled to get defender and drag-flicker Gurjit Kaur to open up. It forced him to adopt the extreme measure of holding up practice when he sought her inputs on what she had done wrong.
"Jab tak tu bolegi nahin, main hatunga nahin (I will not budge until you speak)," he would say, which would be met with a stoic smile. "I would then say, 'Main sar pe hockey maarunga jab tak tu jawab nahin degi (I will hit you with a stick if you do not answer me),' and then she'd invariably say the right thing," remembers Harendra. "I would then tell her that if you knew the answer all along, why would you simply not speak?"
It was 2017, the year that Harendra started working with the women's team and led them to an Asia Cup title after 13 years, and Gurjit top-scored with eight goals. At the ongoing FIH Series Finals in Hiroshima, she has kept India in cruise-control mode for the title with nine* goals, the most for any player.
India beat Chile 4-2 in the semi-final on Saturday, an opposition they had also beaten to the World League Round 2 title in Canada in early 2017. That tournament, incidentally, was where Gurjit would become an indispensable part of the Indian team, with current coach Sjoerd Marijne in charge.
All her coaches remember Gurjit as a strong woman and a keen learner. It was this attitude that first sparked interest in Gurjit, setting her off on her journey with the India blue in 2012. Aged 16, she was first selected for the junior camp, and would graduate to the Indian team in 2014. She scored her first goal on her first tour with the team, to Malaysia, and by her own admission, it was her first drag-flick -- graduating from the standard lift-push and slap hit that the team was more familiar with.
Former India drag-flicker Jugraj Singh, who worked with the Indian women's team for a brief while even as he assisted the men's team, says Gurjit has all the components that make her a good flicker. "Among the women, she's not just strong with her physique, but mentally tough too," says Jugraj, who had first observed Gurjit when she was turning out for North Central Railways, where she's employed. "There's a big difference between the way she played then and the way she carries herself now. As a defender you need a mix of aggression and calmness, and she's able to find that. When you play as a deep defender, you need to command your defence and get players around you to cover gaps. She has improved tremendously in that."
Marijne's first stint with the Indian team saw Gurjit become a permanent member of the squad, and his contribution to her self-belief was significant. Marijne got her to switch from a lighter stick when the Indian team went on a tour of Europe in the summer of 2017. She also got to work with Toon Siepman, the Dutch coach whose wards include Maartje Paumen, Sohail Abbas, Bram Lomans and Mink van der Weerden. Siepman got Gurjit to improve her head position and impressed upon her the need to turn her body the correct way.
Siepman's methods helped, as Gurjit scored four of the six penalty corner (PC) conversions they made at the World League Round 2 and Semi-finals, taking the burden off captain Rani Rampal, who was invariably seen as the primary source for both field goals and PCs through conventional slaps.
When Harendra took over, he found Gurjit's deficiencies similar to those of Sandeep Singh, another Indian drag-flicker that he had worked with in the past. "When she was releasing the ball, she never used to follow through," says Harendra, adding that she was relying purely on the strength in her forearms. "If a drag-flicker can use the shoulders, keep her head down and point her toe towards the goal, she can generate better accuracy and direction."
Harendra devised a drill similar to that had had used on Sandeep -- he placed a used tyre at the base of the goal and noodles at the top corners to reduce the target in front of her. He would stand behind the goal, and as Gurjit would be ready to make contact with the ball, he would instruct her which direction to go in. Harendra believes her work ethic, and repetitive drills like this, helped her become a flicker "on automation" -- she can see the goalkeeper's stance and her initial foot movement, and change the direction of her flick at the last second.
With Gurjit scoring seven goals from PCs, and another through a penalty stroke, India won the Asia Cup and have been on an upward graph since. If the 2016 Olympics saw them earn a point in their maiden appearance at the Games since 1980, their return to the World Cup last summer after eight years was marked with progress to the quarterfinals from a tough group, and a loss via shootout to eventual runners-up Ireland.
In pure numbers, Gurjit's contribution to that improvement shines. In multi-nation events since the start of 2017, her 36 goals from PCs and strokes are just four less than what India had scored in similar events in three years since the start of 2014. While India's wins-to-matches ratio in the two periods are similar (23 off 43 after the FIH Series Finals win against Chile, compared to 17 off 33 before that), they have faced top opposition more often over the last couple of years. Barring the World Cup, Gurjit has scored in each of those tournaments. No wonder, Harendra puts her in the top five drag-flickers in women's hockey today.
For the Indian team itself, this has meant lesser pressure on Rani and a chance to bring more variations into play from their set-piece routines -- they often play for deflections and feints with Gurjit at the top of the battery.
Harendra says Gurjit has an ability to make her teammates laugh like few others can. "She jokes about herself that people from her part of Punjab, near Gurdaspur, thode kam buddhi waale hote hain (are not as intelligent as the rest)," says the former coach. Jugraj saw her ability to bond with her younger teammates first hand when he was invited by Harendra to celebrate Lohri, a harvest festival common to north India, in early 2018 with the team at the Sports Authority of India campus in Bengaluru.
"The dependence of being a key drag-flicker in your team can bring a lot of pressure, but you learn to handle that with experience," he says. "You learn things day-by-day and when you become a key player, then it brings greater responsibility on you."
"You have to start thinking about not just your game but also how you can carry the younger players forward. She has taken on all of these things and that's one of her best qualities. She's calm and focused."
*Story updated to reflect the 4-2 win against Chile in Hiroshima on June 22