Youngster Raj Kumar Pal Singh had almost given up hockey resulting from an turmoil after his father’s demise in 2011 and the difficulties at home. But as luck would have it, Raj went on to make an impressive India debut against world champions  Belgium in February this year at the FIH Hockey Pro League. Also Read - Olympics Postponement Blessing in Disguise: India Dragflicker Gurjit Singh

India men head coach Graham Reid entrusted him with the task of standing up to the Belgian defence, and the attacking midfielder made full use of the opportunity with feisty tackles and several aggressive moves with a confident that belied the fact that it was his first international match. Also Read - Will Keep Fighting And Won't Give up Until I Win Gold For India at Olympics: Mary Kom

“My focus was on executing the role that Coach had entrusted me with. Playing against the World Champions in my first international match was the biggest moment of my life and I wanted to ensure I lived up to the expectations,” Raj said. Also Read - Hockey India Pledges Rs 25 Lakh Towards PM Cares Fund to Battle Coronavirus Crisis

But a tragic turn of events nine years ago could very well have ended his career before it even began. “I had joined the SAI Sports Hostel in 2010 itself but after my father passed away (in 2011), I was forced to stay with my mother who was alone as my brothers also were away from home at that time. The emotional turmoil after losing my father and difficulties at home had almost made me give up hockey but as fate would have it, I rejoined the SAI Sports Hostel in 2012 after my mother persuaded me,” an emotional Raj recalled.

The 21-year-old who now harbours dream of playing at the Tokyo Olympics later this year, wishes his father was alive to see him represent the country. “I really wish my father could see me play for India because he was my biggest support to take up the sport. But his encouraging words continue to give me strength. My only aim now is to give my 100 per cent for the team, stay focused in every day training and try to make the squad for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics,” he said.

Born in Karampur village in Ghazipur district of Uttar Pradesh, Raj burst into the domestic scene during an U-14 tournament in Lucknow in 2010.

A prodigy of Coach Tej Bahadur Singh in Meghbaran Stadium where he began playing hockey alongside his two elder brothers at the age of 10, he was part of the SAI Sports Hostel, Lucknow when he was spotted by Hockey India High Performance Director David John during the senior men national championships in 2018.

“I was called up for the National Camp for the first time in 2018 but it took me a while to get used to the training techniques and game-sense. I used to feel a lot of pressure initially because the hockey we played back home was very different from what the Senior team played. But I was constantly encouraged by Lalit bhai (Upadhyay, India forward also from Uttar Pradesh) who made me understand that it was important to stick to ‘simple hockey’ and not feel pressurised,” recalled Raj Kumar who is the first from Karampur village to don the national colours.

After impressive outing in the Hockey India senior men national championships last year, Raj was called-up for a national camp in Bhubaneswar.  “Since then I have constantly been with the team and Reid is very patient and explains to me what exactly I need to focus on and how I need to cope with the demands of hockey at this level. Though I did have awareness about the fitness required at this level, understanding small things like not to hold the ball too long and general tactical awareness is something I had to work on.

Seniors in the team are also very encouraging and don’t make me feel like a new comer in the team which has helped me tremendously mentally as well. Lalit also kept encouraging me to speak with other midfielders and forwards in the team so my on-field communication improved,” he added.