Podcast: Young Turks - The stories of India’s men’s and women’s Junior Asia Cup winners

In this episode of Sportstar Podcast, Nihit Sachdeva and Santadeep Dey catch up with members of the Indian men’s and women’s Junior Asia Cup winning hockey teams about their successful campaigns, journeys in the sport and more.

Published : Jun 19, 2023 18:48 IST - 13 MINS READ

India’s junior hockey teams enjoyed success at the Junior Asia Cup this year. The men’s team beat Pakistan in a high-octane final to win the title while the women’s team beat four-time champion Korea to claim the crown. In this episode, join Santadeep Dey and Nihit Sachdeva catch up with Araijeet Singh Hundal, Uttam Singh, Annu and Neelam about their successful campaigns, dealing with the attention, their futures in the sport and more.


A cup final and a cup final against Pakistan, is there a difference?

Araijeet: There is no major difference. Yeah, when you play Pakistan you get more footage compared to the other teams be it cricket or any other sport. The public has made up a notion in their heads that the two countries are archrivals. While on the field it still makes sense to an extent, off the field we are all good friends. We often sit down for a chat in the hotel and sometimes hang out together as well. But yes, as you said, first of all the pressure in a final is already very high. The fact that you are playing Pakistan adds to it all. When it comes to Pakistan, it becomes a must-win game.

Uttam: The public demand is very high if it is an India vs Pakistan clash. Not only the fans, but we as players also enjoy playing these matches. The games are very fiercely contested as well. It is always challenging to play against Pakistan. And challenging games only educate us further.

When and how did you all pick up a hockey stick for the first time?

Neelam: My cousin and elder sister both play hockey and it is their example that I followed. When they started playing, I was only in the third or fourth standard. But still whenever I heard that they were going to play, I wanted to go after them. But they never took me along because I was too young then (laughs). They were always like I would get hurt or misbehave. I started playing at my village itself in Hisar. In 2014, I joined the SAI hostel.

Annu: I am the only one from the village who plays the sport. I started playing as a schoolkid and then I joined the SAI in Hisar in 2013. At school, girls played kho kho, judo and other sport. One of my teachers thought I ran well, so they decided to put me in the hockey team.

Araijit: My father was a hockey player and his three brothers are as well. My dad was in the 1999 camp as well in Bengaluru but for some reason things didn’t turn out well. Now I am here to fulfil his unrealised dream. My background itself is hockey, you can say. My father used to take me to the ground as a kid and that’s how I got into the sport. But I only started seriously pursuing it around eight-nine years ago.

Uttam: In Karampura, hockey, they say has been going on for about 150 years. Now they have put Astroturfs as well. Like people in most parts of India play gully cricket, here the story isn’t such. Kids in every locality here go and play hockey. My father used to play ‘gully hockey’ as well. He used to always tell me I could pursue the sport as a career if I wanted.

A Commonwealth Games bronze medal and the FIH Women’s Nations cup title with the senior team last year and now, the Asian title with the junior side. Can you provide a sneak peek into Janneke Schopman’s coaching methods?

Neelam: Schopman’s training methods are quite nice. Having played a full tournament under her guidance, you get to know how she is thinking. Of course, on the field she manages us but off the field also she ensures we stay together as a unit. She guides us on what to do when. On the field she is a pro (laughs). She is a bit strict but I think that is required. She is herself very disciplined in her ways, so she makes sure the whole team follows her routine as well. If she screams at us, at the end of the day it is for our own good. When somebody is on the ball, she doesn’t bother anyone but when we are defending and have our back against the wall, she goes all out on the coaching. And that is the best part.

Korea is a four-time Junior Women’s Asia Cup champion. After a 1-1 draw in the group stage, you beat the same side in a close contest in the final. How was the experience of facing such a tough team and did that group-stage meeting help prepare for the final?

Annu: Korea was a tough opponent to have. But as Neelam said, the coach had done her homework and during the meeting communicated to us about the weaknesses and strengths of each player of our opposition. We only followed her instructions to the T. The fact that we were 1-1 in the league stage and then 1-1 in the earlier stages of the final, only made us want to score all the more.

Sports has its ups and downs. And while you all have the reason to celebrate after your recent victory, the same might not be the case every time. How have you trained yourself to deal with failures?

Uttam: Failure plays a big role in us achieving our targets in life. Before the junior Asia Cup itself, we went through a lot of struggles. We lost a few players to injuries, I myself was injured. I started playing 2010 and getting a hostel was becoming difficult. I had appeared for the trials of almost 10 hostels. Only after that I got a hostel. I played a couple of Nationals, scored 9-10 goals in one, but still wasn’t selected. Finally I got selected in 2019. If we let go after trying once, lose all hope, we become a coward. The strongest people are who fall to only rise up again. Like Virat Kohli was going through a very tough phase. But look at him now; he’s made an epic comeback.

Does it help to have a former player running the federation?

Uttam: They are running the federation now. Since they have been a player before, they know exactly what kind of problems an athlete faces when he or she is starting out. They have been through all the stages that each player is going through. So, they know precisely what to provide to us so that the success rate is more. Tirkey sir has played more than 300 matches for India, it is heartening for us to have him as our ‘boss’. Since he has become the Hockey India president, a lot of changes have been implemented. Good changes. Changes we are all happy with. Like after winning a tournament, we rush to check our phones to find out how much cash prize HI has announced (laughs). It wasn’t always the case. To promote youth, they have also increased the number of tournaments in each category. The youth is benefiting a lot from this.

What all changes have you observed in the system?

Uttam: India won an Olympic medal, a bronze medal, after 40 years at Tokyo 2020. The entire country had been waiting so long for this and the senior team met those expectations. Manpreet bhai did a great job with his captaincy. India had established a legacy with six consecutive gold medals in men’s hockey. Despite not being a free nation, we could go abroad and win a gold medal. The sport was very popular in our country at that time and India was recognised as a major force by world hockey. To keep that going, the senior team has improved a lot, won the medal in Tokyo and at present, India is in the top four in world rankings. We get a lot of importance after winning. The senior team got a lot of exposure tournaments and the junior team is also being taken care of. Hockey India League might resume next year and the President has taken the initiative for the same.

The day the women’s team won the title, the men’s cricket team lost the WTC final. How did you feel after looking at the reaction of the country on your title win?

Neelam: To be honest, I had no clue that there was a cricket final going on simultaneously because we were so busy in our tournament. We could not get much rest as we played the semifinal and the very next day, we had the summit clash.I also did not know because I’m not interested in cricket at all. We did not have much network there but once we returned to our hotel, we can not explain that happiness because we were so excited that we had finally won.We were determined to win gold. Even when someone would tell us to bring a medal, we would respond that no, we’ll bring gold. When we saw the reaction on instagram, twitter and social media in general, it felt really nice because this was our first-ever major tournament. We had not played in a high-level event before. We were happy but also unable to express our feelings because all of this was so new for us.

How was the reception at the airport?

Neelam: We had no idea because no one told us that someone is going to come and welcome us that way. The airlines too welcomed us nicely. When we stepped out of the flight and people congratulated us, I wondered, “Is all of this really happening for us?” We came out and there was media everywhere. One camera here, one camera there. It was quite unbelievable. Bangalore SAI too treated us well.

How was the atmosphere in your village after the win?

Annu: My parents were not aware that I had won gold after the final but my brother was. He called them and told them that we had won the final. So, my parents got a bit emotional. Even now, the villagers are waiting when we’ll arrive.

How do you deal with such popularity since this must be so new for all of you?

Araijeet: We don’t deal with it. We enjoy it. We celebrate it. It feels good that 10 people are talking about your team’s victory. It is happening for the first time in our lives. It is a proud moment.

Annu: Both junior boys and girls created history, especially girls since they won after such a long time (actually their first-ever title). Cricket gets much more importance even though hockey is the national sport. So, that day, it felt really nice.

How do you relax when you are not training or playing? And who is the prankster in your teams?

Uttam: I’ll first answer the second question. In our time, the biggest prankster is Boby Singh Dhami. He kept playing pranks on me all the time. If I go to the swimming pool, he’ll try to push me into the pool. Keeps joking all the time but mostly with me and I do the same with him. But otherwise, everyone in the team is like this only. I might be a prankster for someone and so on.

Araijeet: Boby is the biggest prankster. He doesn’t understand and can play prank on anyone, especially with Uttam because these two are captain and vice captain.

Annu: Amongst us girls, no one is a prankster of such level but yes, we do joke around a bit. No particular name as such.

In the women’s final against Korea, the score at one stage was 1-1. How much pressure does it create knowing that someone has to take the lead now? In such a big tournament against a four-time champion? How did you handle it?

Neelam: We had played a match against the senior team before leaving for Japan. We knew that there’s no way we are going to beat them. So, we thought let’s play and see what happens.We had conceded two goals inside the first quarter but we felt we are in the game. It was a tough match and I felt so much pressure that I could not decide where to pass the ball. I came off the pitch and said, I am unable to understand how to play and coach said, this is the game. This is what is going to happen there (at Junior Asia Cup) and you’ll be unable to understand where to pass the ball. Then, we played the next quarter and felt similar to what we felt in the tournament. Personally, I did not feel much pressure in the final because I had experienced that in the semifinals.Final was a bit easy. In the team meeting, we said that we have nothing to lose. Even if we lose, we will finish second anyway. So, if we put some extra effort and try to perform even better, we will win the gold and achieve a lot. This was the mindset. Our strikers were pressing well. We kept getting better by every passing match. From our first match to the final, we improved a lot. If I feel pressure, I ask my teammates to come closer and help me. Emotionally too, it is a big support. After we took the 2-1 lead, coach told us to keep ball possession and not to attack too much.Keep possession and if we get a chance to counter attack, we would.

What message would you like to give to the youngsters who want to take up hockey as a profession?

Uttam: In India, the 16-17-year-old youngsters who are playing, they should be serious regarding their work. Coach, senior player, former Olympians or International player or under whoever they train - like in Haryana and UP - the Olympians provide training. Whatever the senior players or coaches tell them, please listen to them and follow the same. Listen to your parents, don’t joke around a lot and stay serious when it comes to work. Once you get a win and earn some prize money, you should not feel satisfied and think you have made it. This was your ultimate dream. I would say that is not the end. Sreejesh and Manpreet Bhai played thrice at the Olympics, finally won a medal and still, i feel they are working even harder than us. Looking at them, we feel motivated. So, youngsters who are playing hockey, they should also think that even after achieving all this, when someone is not stopping and working hard for your country. Compared to them, our achievement is nothing. So, till the time you achieve something really big, don’t stop.

Annu: Keep working hard. Ask the coaches about your mistakes and where you can improve.

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