Growing up, I had always found hockey to be an entertaining sport. Enticed by it’s fast pace, I was always drawn towards it and what made it special was it had been the one sport in which India was untouchable once upon a time. My father, an ardent hockey fan, had great knowledge and understanding of the game and was the one who enlightened me with the brilliance of Dhanraj Pillay, the tactical master mindedness of the Germans and the term ‘drag flick’. By the time I turned ten, I was a regular spectator of Indian hockey matches, both on T.V and at the stadium and it was during one of these matches in August 2003 that I saw Jugraj Singh in action for India and instantly knew that he would be my hockey idol for years to come.
Jugraj Singh was born in 1983 in Amritsar, Punjab into a family of hockey players. His elder sister Rajbeer Kaur Rai was an ex-Indian Hockey captain and an Arjuna Awardee and so young Jugraj took to hockey like many young kids in his village; the only difference was that he was exceptional. Jugraj trained at the famous Surjeet Singh Hockey Academy in Jalandhar and later at Air India Hockey Academy, Delhi. Jugraj played as a left full-back and was extremely athletic, agile and skilful with his movements. He quickly rose through the ranks to represent his country at a young age of seventeen at the Asia Cup in Ipoh in 2001.
Jugraj was the first world class drag-flick expert that India had produced and the lack of one in the National team was a major reason for his inclusion in the team because back then, owing to an unlimited number of substitutions during a match, a team could bring in a penalty corner expert during the corner and then immediately substitute him after it had been taken; a rule which was well exploited by a lot of nations and was ultimately removed. This was one of his primary roles in the first couple of years with the Indian team and he did well scoring five goals in the ’02 Champions Trophy, helping India finish fourth.
However, it was in 2003 against arch-rivals Pakistan in a Champions Trophy group stage match that he well and truly announced his arrival at the big stage. By now, Jugraj had established himself in the Indian starting eleven as an explosive left back alongside the experienced Dilip Tirkey and was drawing the interest of foreign coaches and tacticians with his powerful drag flicks and marauding runs down the field. The Indians started the match slowly and the Pakistanis were quick to capitalise on this, going ahead 2-0 thanks to goals from Rehan Butt and Nadeem Ahmad within the first twenty minutes and this had my father leaving the room disgruntled with the abject display by the team throughout the tournament (Earlier on India had lost 4-3 to Holland in the first game after leading 3-0 with only seven minutes remaining and had then lost two of their next three as well, so this match was about saving face).
While I hung on hoping for a turn-around, it was the atmosphere of the match was what kept me glued to the TV. Turban-clad Sardars jumping with their bulging pot-bellies, waving the Indian flags high, and equally vocal Pakistani fans trying to push their team for more with their deafening hooters. I had a feeling this was going to be something special. I prayed silently for Jugraj to produce something special to aid an Indian revival and he did not disappoint. In the 20th minute, India earned a penalty corner and Jugraj stepped up to take it; this was it, he had to convert it for India to stand any chance of a comeback and he absolutely belted it past the Pakistani goalie. The ball was hit so ferociously that I could not see it but only heard it strike the board inside the goal and India had scored! Jugraj had done it!
However, the elation was short lived as Pakistan scored again to go 3-1 up, but the game had now opened up and India earned another penalty corner minutes before the half-time and once again it was Jugraj Singh who stepped up and hit an unstoppable shot to the top right corner for India’s second. The scoreline read 3-2. At this point, I was off my feet. There is no feeling better than when your favourite player scores, confidently looks up to thank God and then jogs back with the looks of a man on a mission. It is times like these that you sense the arrival of a new Star, someone who could take the baton from Dhanraj Pillay and steer India to the heights of success which it had been looking forward to ever since the glory days of the past.
What happened in the second half was nothing short of a miracle and it was one of those halves which remain forever etched in your memory. India won the match 7-4 and scored an amazing five goals in the last eighteen minutes. There were scenes of jubilations around, fans invaded the field, those who did not have flags were now waving their t-shirts around in joy, news channels were filled with this sensational result, India was beginning to see hope in the National game again and the centre of it all was Jugraj Singh. If not scoring goals, Jugraj was defending like a lionheart. In the second half of the same match, he had thwarted three Sohail Abbas penalty corners and when Pakistan earned a fourth one, he did not step up to take it. This had the whole world taking notice for Sohail Abbas is by far the best drag flicker hockey had ever produced, he felt aghast watching this young man come striding out to block his vicious shots. It was like Sachin Tendulkar refusing to go out and bat because he was too scared the face the bowlers.
With the 2004 Athens Olympics around the corner, India had a mix of talented youth and experienced seniors in the squad and the whole nation was banking on Jugraj Singh now. But just like the case of Bobby Claudius and Rajneesh Mishra before, tragedy struck on September the third in Jalandhar. Jugraj was returning home late at night after having dinner with his friends at nearby Paragpur when on the way back, in order to avoid a rickshaw-puller, he swung the wheel of his Zen and crashed sustaining multiple fractures in the right pelvis, thigh and right elbow.
This was a serious blow to Indian Hockey. The areas of Jugraj’s injury made it impossible for him to hit the drag flick again and without that, he was just another player who could run his heart for the country but provide nothing extra. India finished a disappointing seventh at the Olympic games and sorely missed the expertise of Jugraj Singh for the penalty corners as now it was the seasoned veteran Dilip Tirkey trying flat hits, something which was almost extinct from the game. It saddened me every time when I saw the likes of Taeke Taekema, Sohail Abbas and Jorge Lombi score breath-taking goals via penalty corners. And the only question in my mind was – what if? Jugraj never made it into the team again and although he tried his best, he just could not conjure up the same venom with his shots. Eventually, he retired after having a stint with the Chandigarh Dynamos in the now defunct PHL.
Jugraj is now the penalty corner coach for Team India and was the man behind the rise of Sandeep Singh as India’s penalty corner expert. Another one of his protégés, Rupinder Pal Singh, is now with the Indian team and showed signs of promise with his hits during the recently concluded Asian Champions Trophy in Qatar. Speaking of Jugraj Singh’s influence on his game Rupinder said,”I did not achieve this overnight. My drag flick coach Jugraj has worked hard for that. I owe my success to him,” He added, “Sohail Abbas is brilliant drag flicker. He has the world record against his name but if Jugraj did not meet with an accident in 2003, he might have been the record holder”.
I have watched Indian Hockey plunge to new depths since the Athens Olympics; not qualifying for Beijing and then finishing last at London in 2012 and it hurts to come to grips with the harsh reality but I am proud of my hockey idol for he did not give up and he still wants the best for the country. Maybe if Rupinder or Raghunath do end up becoming perfectionists of the drag-flick, the world will once again take notice of the genius who could not be.
Jugraj Singh’s tale will always be a sad reminder of what might have been had it not been for that ill-fated accident but I think he can take heart from the fact that Sohail Abbas once said that when he saw Jugraj drag-flick, he saw a younger version of himself. That is equivalent to Bradman saying he saw himself batting when he saw Sachin bat.