Young guns Shamsher Singh, Ashis Topno ready for the big stage

Shamsher Singh and Ashis Topno came up the hard way, but they are now in line to make their India debut.

Ashis Topno (left) and Shamsher Singh are set to make their debuts for the India national hockey team.   -  K. Murali Kumar

Three years ago, Shamsher Singh watched from the sidelines as the Indian team went on to lift the Junior World Cup on home soil. The forward from the border town of Attari was named on standby but he eventually played no part in the tournament. Shamsher did not imagine then that he had much of a future with the National set-up. But a lot can change in three years. Last week, the 22-year-old was named in the Indian senior men's team for the Olympic Test Event in Tokyo. When Shamsher called home to inform his family of his selection, the announcement was met with disbelief. "They thought it was a joke," he says. “Because there are so many senior players in the team. They didn't believe me. They are very excited now."

When he looks back, Shamsher is a little surprised himself. "I never thought I would reach this level," he says. "But over the last two years, I've been working very hard. It's been a dream of mine to represent the nation and I'm very proud. I just can't wait for my debut."
Shamsher is a versatile player, capable of playing up front or in midfield. He is, in the words of chief coach Graham Reid, an Australian style of player. "He's strong on the ball, he's fast, and he's very smart," says Reid. "He understands what we are trying to do with the press. He's flexible, can play in the forward-line and also in midfield. So he ticks off a lot of boxes that I look for in players."

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Shamsher learnt his trade at the Surjit Singh Hockey Academy in Jalandhar, from where a number of India's current senior crop hail. Growing up, life was not always easy. "My father's a farmer. As a youngster, there was some difficulty in terms of buying hockey sticks and good shoes. But my family supported me a lot, so we were able to manage," he says.

Also in line to make his debut for India in Tokyo is Ashis Topno. The midfielder from Deogarh in Odisha caught Reid's eye with his dribbling and ball control. "His skills on the ball are beautiful to watch," says the Australian. "We've been improving his tackling. He hasn't had too much experience at this level, so it's been about trying to get him to this level in terms of tactics and strategy. He can turn on a dime but he's also open to understanding the way we want him to play."

Topno is a man of few words. The 21-year-old initially played with home-made hockey sticks, but his talent soon saw him inducted into the government-run sports hostels in Panposh and Bhubaneshwar. "As a kid I dreamt of becoming like Dilip Tirkey, Prabodh Tirkey, Ignace Tirkey and Lazarus Barla one day," he says. "They were my inspiration. It feels nice to be playing in the senior team now."