"Graham Reid treats the juniors on par with seniors," says Varun Kumar
Much like fellow drag flickers Harmanpreet Singh and Amit Rohidas, Varun Kumar displays little emotion on the pitch.
Yet, when he does smile in the post-match presentations as he did while accepting the Man of the Match award after a gruelling World Cup encounter against Belgium, the defender from Punjab exudes a boyish charm and gentleness that is most often shielded by an intense glare.
The infectious grin was visible yet again when Varun stood alongside Harmanpreet to accept the prize for being the highest scorer at the FIH Series Finals in Bhubaneswar after having assisted his side record an outright title triumph for the first time since winning gold in the Asia Cup a couple of years back.
Ten tournaments on the trot for Varun Kumar
Varun Kumar was part of the squad that won gold at Dhaka in October 2017 and also played his part when India and Pakistan were declared joint winners of the Asian Champions Trophy at Muscat last year.
Incredibly enough, Varun played ten tournaments on the trot since being picked by Sjoerd Marijne for the Asia Cup - a feat which none of his teammates have managed.
The Asia Cup was followed by the Hockey World League Finals in December 2017 and a jam-packed 2018 which began with the Four-Nations in New Zealand had Varun Kumar on board.
The defender went on to represent India at the Azlan Shah Cup, Commonwealth Games, Champions Trophy, Asian Games, Asian Champions Trophy, and the World Cup.
The ever-dependable lad from Punjab was finally rested for the Australian tour after helping his side win silver at the Azlan Shah Cup earlier this year but returned with a bang in the FIH Series Finals.
"It's wonderful when I look back at the last year and a half as it is true that I have played every single tournament since the Asia Cup. I was not part of the Australia tour but it's been a challenge for me to keep myself fit and I have always aimed to give my very best in each camp."
In an exclusive interview with Sportskeeda, the unassuming 24-year-old reflects on his rising prowess as a drag-flicker, gives us an insight into why the choice of PC routines and personnel are match-specific, and shares his fondness for coach Graham Reid's man-management skills.
The drag flicks have been getting better with each passing tournament even as the sheer repertoire of the strikes confound the opposite camp like never before, but Varun is far from satisfied.
"My aim is to be able to score in crucual situations"
"I feel my PC conversions have improved a lot as compared to before thanks to Chris Ciriello who has taught us a lot. I have worked on my shortcomings for quite a while now and I feel I have been able to iron out my flaws to a great extent but I know I have a lot to learn to be able to score in do-or-die scenarios."
"My aim is to be able to score in crucial situations in the big matches where we manage to earn just one or two PCs. The PCs earned in these situations can lead to matches being won or lost depending on whether or not we can score off them."
While Harmpanpreet Singh's lethal drag flicks have sunk many a side over the last couple of years or so, Varun Kumar is coming of age too while Amit Rohidas can spring a surprise or two with the PCs.
The Indians now boast of a three-man battery and Varun explained how the trio decides as to who should step up to take which PC.
"There are separate sessions conducted for PC training where we pick up new techniques. In the prematch meetings, we analyse the strengths and weaknesses of the opposition goalkeepers and then determine which of us has a flick that is suitable to beat the defence based on our assessment."
"For each match, we prepare a few routines based on our reading of the rival teams, and we do try and surprise them with a completely new variation if and when required. The running patterns of the defenders during a match are also followed closely by the coaching staff who then spot the gaps and let us know whether to go direct or indirect."
"For example, if we come to know that a certain goalkeeper is vulnerable on the right, then the player who has a powerful right-sided flick is assigned the task."
For a man who has been in the thick of the action for a while now, Varun still rates India's Junior World Cup triumph as the most memorable event of his career but is candid enough to admit that every tournament leaves an imprint of its own.
"Every tournament in which I have represented the country has been special for me but the Junior World Cup has been the most memorable tournament for me thus far. We won the title after a gap of 15 years and it was my first major tournament as a junior."
"I hope that as time passes we will be even more successful as a team - so more and more wonderful memories will be created."
Varun feels that coach Graham Reid who has been entrusted with the task of guiding the Indians to the Olympic qualifiers and beyond is one who never discriminates.
"What I like about Graham Reid the most is that he treat the treats the juniors on par with the seniormost players in the team. He interacts the same way with every member of the team irrespective of the amount of experience they possess."
"Most importantly, the same rules apply for the entire unit without any exceptions, and this is something that I truly admire about his methods."
After a roller-coaster year, the Indian men have had a relatively quieter time recently but Varun feels the absence of back-to-back tournaments has given the players ample time to focus on correcting technical deficiencies and adding new skills to their arsenal.
"Last year was a busy one for us but this year there are not that many tournaments scheduled. I feel it's a good thing as we get to practise and perfect our techniques and learn some new ones as well in the camp which I feel will be of immense benefit to us in the long term."
"When we have back-to-back tournaments, the focus is primarily on devising strategies to counter the other sides and we do not have the luxury of spending time to correct our mistakes or fine-tune our skills."
The Indians will look to test some young talent in the forthcoming Olympic Test events which are to be held in Japan in August - and, of course, Varun Kumar will be there too.