It was at the 2016 Hockey India Sub-Junior Nationals that Sanjay caught the eye of the author, who also played in the tournament representing Odisha.
The tall lad, playing for Chandigarh, was the star of the tournament, having taken his team to the semifinals almost singlehandedly. They eventually won bronze.
As the tournament was held just before the 2016 Hockey India League auction, there was already talk that this kid was going to be the next big thing in Indian Hockey. Five years on, the 6’3’ lad is creating all the buzz in Bhubaneswar at the FIH Men’s Junior Hockey World Cup.
Having already scored eight goals (including two hat-tricks) in three matches, Sanjay is living up to his reputation. Stopping Sanjay from scoring was difficult then and is difficult now too.
“Sanjay was unstoppable during the 2016 Sub-Junior Nationals and has been a nightmare for opponents with his fierce drag-flicks here too. We had to create different strategies only for Sanjay to make sure that he doesn’t get enough possession during the semis,” said Amulya Behera, the then coach of the Hockey Gangpur Odisha team that defeated Chandigarh in the semifinals of the Nationals and eventually went on to become champions.
Hockey Gangpur Odisha had entrusted Akash Ekka to stop Sanjay from scoring that night in Manipur and Akash did it to perfection.
"Our coach had said, 'Akash, your only job will be to stop Sanjay from receiving the ball,'" said Akash over the phone from Bilaspur, where he is representing his university in the East Zone University tournament.
Akash also went on to represent India at the Asian School Games in 2017 where Sanjay was his captain and India won gold.
Everyone at that Nationals was amazed by Sanjay's stick work. Playing as a central midfielder, he dribbled the ball all alone to the opponent’s circle, and either used it to score a field goal or create a penalty corner. The icing on the cake was he also used to score with his drag-flicks after creating the PC himself.
Sanjay, the next big thing in Indian hockey
Expert drag-flicker Rupinder Pal Singh retired after helping India win bronze at the Tokyo Olympics. The onus is on Harmanpreet Singh, Varun Kumar and Amit Rohidas to make it count for India. Former junior India team captain Mandeep Mor, who is also a specialist drag-flicker, has been drafted into the team which will play the Asian Champions Trophy.
Sanjay’s glittering performance at the Junior World Cup might fetch him a place in the senior India camp. His robust build, along with the ability to generate power right from the bottom, makes him a strong contender to fill Rupinder’s boots.
Sanjay may have already made it onto the list of senior men’s chief coach Graham Reid, who is with the junior team in Bhubaneswar.
Interestingly, both Rupinder and Sanjay come from the famous Chandigarh Hockey Academy and have a similar approach to the game – cool and calm. Unlike most players hailing from Punjab or Chandigarh, Sanjay doesn’t celebrate much after scoring a goal. He walks back silently.
A member of the 2018 silver-winning Youth Olympics squad, Sanjay’s major breakthrough came when he was named captain of the 2017 gold medal-winning 5th School Asian Games India squad. There has been no looking back for him since then.
“Sanjay is a gifted player. He has always made it count whenever he gets an opportunity and is a leader who always keeps motivating his teammates on the pitch,” said former Junior India player Pratap Lakra, who currently works with the Secunderabad Railways.
Sanjay, 20, is definitely the next big thing in Indian hockey.
India face Belgium in the quarterfinals of the Junior World Cup on December 1, after finishing second in Pool B behind France. The team will be looking to repeat their performance in the 2016 edition where they defeated Belgium 2-1.