Raj Kumar Pal's journey from Karampur to the heart of Indian hockey

Raj Kumar Pal in action during India's Pro League game against Australia in Bhubaneswar on February 21, 2020. Hockey India

The lone debutant in Indian men's hockey for 2020, Raj Kumar Pal is lucky that his first name lends itself to some effortless headline writing in his home state of Uttar Pradesh. On Friday, Raj Kumar sparked a terrific comeback by India during their home game against champions Australia in the Pro League in Bhubaneswar, scoring two goals after India had conceded two in a poor first-half showing.

The range of scoring made it clear why Pal, 21, could be a vital cog in the Indian team for a while to come. The first was a calm reverse-stick finish off a deflected save from a Rupinder Pal Singh penalty corner, one where Raj Kumar did well to bounce the ball into the net between the goalkeeper and the postman. The second goal was even sweeter -- he picked up an Indian free hit near the Australian circle, took a couple of steps to get in, and then smacked it low across the face of Andrew Charter in goal and into the goal off the inside of the post. India nearly took the game to penalties, Rupinder Pal just smacking a drag flick wide in the dying seconds to hand Australia a 4-3 win, but Raj Kumar's efforts stood out.

Raj Kumar first made news when selected for a five-nation U-23 tournament in Belgium in 2018. The local newspapers were simply factual when they called him 'Ghazipur ka Raj Kumar' - but the phrase effectively means the 'Prince of Ghazipur'.

Raj Kumar became the first man from his village Karampur and district Ghazipur to have worn the India senior jersey when he faced Belgium in India's second clutch of Pro League matches earlier this month, and is now hoping to become the king of India's impressive midfield under coach Graham Reid.

The youngest of three brothers who took to hockey, Raj Kumar's journey from the streets of Karampur -- about 35 kms east of Varanasi, virtually on the Uttar Pradesh-Bihar border -- to rubbing shoulders with the FIH Player of the Year Manpreet Singh is a tale in itself. However, as his mentor and senior Lalit Upadhyay -- among the first of his team-mates to congratulate him for his first goal - puts it, "When we get to play for India, we think it is the completion of a dream. Once you have played for India, you realise you are now playing to complete the dreams of several others around you."

Raj Kumar's elder brothers, Jokhan and Raju, were hockey players too, and he admits that there was no other sport to turn to but hockey. Raj Kumar joined the Meghbaran stadium at age 10, where coach Tej Bahadur Singh took an interest in all three of the Pal brothers.

Raj Kumar's first interest in competitive hockey was sparked when he performed well at an Under-14 tournament in Lucknow in 2010. When he made his debut against Belgium, what stood out was the speed at which Raj Kumar ran from one end of the pitch to the other -- his strongest asset, he feels, from the earliest days. "I was very quick. We used to play on grass grounds, and I used to love dodging and dribbling," he recalls. "In practice, when a team lost, we would then challenge each other to a 100m or 200m race. We would decide a point where we had to sprint to, touch and come back, and I always won."

When Raj Kumar's father Kalpanath died in a road accident in 2011, Jokhan -- himself already a trainee at the SAI centre in Lucknow -- and his mother Manraji Devi had to cajole Raj Kumar to stick to hockey. "I didn't want to play, but they persuaded me to go to the hostel. They said, 'There's no point in brooding at home,'" he says. Jokhan was still two years away from getting his first job -- Tej Bahadur would help the family out by paying for kits, conveyance, shoes, and even helped Raj Kumar with pocket money.

In 2012, Raj Kumar joined the SAI hostel, and was drawn towards the pace and style of Upadhyay, who had been a batch mate of Jokhan's. Upadhyay had already starred in the Bhopal franchise of the World Series Hockey, and would go on to play for India soon after.

Upadhyay would also become Raj Kumar's confidante when he earned his first India camp call-up after his performance in Belgium, where India won the bronze medal at the expense of the hosts in a match where Raj Kumar opened the scoring. "When I came there for the first time, I used to hesitate about what to talk about. Lalitbhai -- since he comes from my region -- used to support me a lot," says Raj Kumar. "He would come to my room and chat with me, and he would tell me what to do. He asked me to pick the brains of the other midfielders and get all my doubts cleared from them."

Reid blooded Raj Kumar against Belgium based on what he had seen in practice. "He's quite fast, and he's got very good skills. We do a lot of tackling box, which is one-on-one defending, where you practise your tackling and what have you. He's always the one that guys don't want to go against, because his hands are very quick," Reid had said ahead of the Belgium game. "Obviously, playing his first game against the world champions shows you the respect that I have for him."

On debut, he contributed to a number of moves going forward. He also remonstrated for an umpiring decision after India had lost their review early, and then picked up a green card for hitting the ball away after conceding a free hit, but there was much to be encouraged about his performance.

"That first game was good -- it didn't feel like a debut," says Upadhyay, who sub-consciously calls himself an 'elder brother' before correcting it to 'senior player'. "If you make your debut against a top team and then keep going against quality opposition, then you will develop confidence. Giving feedback is not my job per se, because the coach's verdict matters more. As a senior player, I have told him that he is doing well.

"But in this sport you have to learn things on your own as well. He is going to have to prove that he can improve in the matches to come."

It's a theory Raj Kumar recognises, and the fact that this is an Olympic year is not lost on him. "My target is to prove myself here, so that I can get a chance [at the Olympics]. I have to give a 100 percent here, and this is my chance to go up. It's just the first step for me," he says.

If the Belgium games were the first steps, the strides he made on Friday would suggest there could be a new star on the horizon for Indian hockey.