Safeguarding the goalpost of Rajasthan Patriots in the inaugural Premier Handball League is its cornerstone and captain, Atul Kumar.
With seven wins and three losses, the Patriots will face Maharashtra Ironmen, a team they have defeated twice, in the semifinal on Saturday. The goalkeeper felt that despite the Ironmen being a better team on paper, the first win was a moral booster that the team needed to kickstart its journey and will hope to repeat it in the semis.
“Maharashtra were the favourites, as their foreign players were of high rank, and the team was strong. We thought if we won the first match, then we could build on that confidence; we defeated them in the last seconds, thanks to a penalty,” says Atul.
Unfaced by the performance pressure, Atul is confident of his team and is ready to face his opponent as he does in any other match. “We know their strategy; they know ours. It will be an interesting match; we will give our best. It depends on whose strategy works and whose doesn’t,” he says.
In 2005, as a 10th grader who preferred sports over studies, Atul gave the sport a shot as his school handball team was one of the best in Chandigarh. Another factor triggered his urge to join handball- kits, food and drinks for students going to tournaments. “I joined with the mindset that I’ll enjoy the sport, and it will be a getaway from studies. However, when I started playing, I was short for a goalkeeper, and the ball used to hit me in the face, which is when I realized it wasn’t easy. After 1-2 years, I grew up and decided to continue goalkeeping.”
Now, the captain of the Indian men’s handball team, Atul is glad his mother sought the help of his coach, Ravinder Singh Bawa, who convinced her to let him play.
From 2012 onwards, Atul has grown leaps and bounds after securing a job in the Indian Air Force via sports quota. He went on to win ten golds for Services at the Senior Nationals, was a member of the gold-winning squad at the 2014 and 2016 South Asian Games, and recently captained India to reach the IHF Emerging Nations 2023 semifinals in Bulgaria.
Age is just a number for the 32-year-old, who feels that goalkeeping in handball gets better with age and experience.
The Indian captain’s mantra is to remain ‘cool’ in tense situations to avoid silly mistakes. “When you are down, don’t panic. Think with a cool mind, give your best and leave the result for later. Most importantly, to avoid regrets, you should be satisfied with your efforts,” he advises.
In PHL, Atul is surprised and impressed by Telugu Talons, ‘who on paper is not that experienced.’ Having lost to them twice, he wishes to exact revenge in case they meet in the finals. “They have a foreign coach, are on top, and their strategies have worked. It feels good seeing them play,” he adds.
While his team has three foreign players, Atul is more reliant on Dmitrii Kireev, the Russian right-back, who at 35, is also one of the oldest and most experienced players in PHL. “Having played international tournaments for years, he plays a very mature and balanced game, and we lean on him during pressure situations,” says the captain.
When it comes to differentiating handball in India and abroad, Atul has a lot to say. “The Senior Nationals are played outdoors, while international matches take place indoors. There is a huge difference in the ball used and ground facilities. Due to this, we take time to cope with the changes. Now we have similar facilities in PHL, which is taking place according to international standards.”
“What matters the most in handball is height and power of the release. This is something the foreign players are better at than us, while we are superior in terms of skills,” he adds.
With the upcoming Asian Games selection impending, Atul believes he has a fair chance of making it to the squad and hopefully retaining his captaincy. “Given my performance in the league and as the Indian team captain, I’m confident of my selection for the Asian Games,” he concludes.
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