Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Meet the 'Rupinder Pal Singh' of Indian women's hockey Jaspreet Kaur


This piece was published in Sportskeeda
 
Jaspreet Kaur is the female version of Rupinder Pal Singh or Vokkaliga Raghunath and is the chief penalty corner drag-flicker for India. And yes, when she unleashes them, she does pack a punch. There is little doubt that Kaur holds abundant promise not just as a handy drag-flicker, but also as a stout defender.

The 18-year-old Indian fullback relishes the challenge of being the main drag-flicker in the Indian women’s side. “It feels really good to shoulder the drag-flicking responsibility as I know that my team looks up to me to convert penalty corners, which can be so crucial in deciding the outcome of a match. Having said that, there is pressure as well as the weight of expectations can be a tad difficult to cope with at times. I always look to contribute for my side be it scoring goals from short corners or through defending,” she said in an exclusive interview from Bhopal, where the national team is attending the preparatory camp at the SAI Centre there for the 2015 Hockey World League Round 2 tournament.

The suave, soft-spoken defender is the newest talent to emerge from the all-famous Shabad Hockey Academy tucked away in a sleepy township of Shahbad in the Kurukshetra district of Haryana. This academy has been nothing short of a ‘player-producing factory’ for the national women’s hockey team over the years.

Kaur attributes her hockey career to her long stint at Shahbad’s famous Shabad Hockey Academy, where celebrated coach Baldev Singh take cares of the hockey students like his own children. “I hail from Kharindwa village close to Shahbad and it was my father who after seeing my interest for hockey enrolled me at the Shabad Hockey Academy in 2004, where I honed my skills under Baldev Singh Sir. Today, whatever little I have achieved in hockey I owe it to him. He has been a big influence in my career – a strict coach who knows how to get the best out of the girls. I remember those days when I used to stay in rented places in Shahbad – the struggles of frequently shifting rented places as per the desires of houseowners. It was not easy for a girl to shift places and focus on hockey, but I endured all that and strived hard at the academy,” Kaur said.

The Haryana girl, who has represented the country in 80 internationals, also spoke about how Shahbad is fast emerging as the ‘Sansarpur of women’s hockey’. “Girls here have the passion to play for India. They know if they work hard a career is possible in hockey. Talent-wise, there is no shortage here as girls of all age-groups train here in the hope of playing for India one day. I’m sure more girls will come up in future and serve the national team,” she said.

The confabulation veers towards the speed generated by men and women drag-flickers and Kaur makes her point. “There cannot be any comparison between the men and women drag-flickers. Obviously, the men generate more power than us and far as I’m concerned I’m constantly working to add more power to my drag-flicks. Drag-flickers need to do exercises for the shoulder and back as shoulder and back injuries can easily happen. I’m still going through the learning curve and looking to get better,” she said with a tinge of maturity beyond her age.

The gangling fullback was out of international action for more than a year after undergoing an operation on her right knee. But Kaur’s comeback was superb as she emerged as the team’s top goal-scorer at the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games as well as the Incheon Asian Games, where India bagged a bronze. “The Commonwealth Games was my first major international comeback although I played the six Test series against Malaysia preceding that event. I scored six goals there and again at the Asiad I was able to score whenever the team needed. I was chuffed with the way things unfolded for me,” she said.
Kaur weaves past the Polish defence

Kaur’s last international tournament before her knee injury was the 2012 London Oltmpics qualifiers. So how difficult was it for her to cope with the injured-induced lay-off? “It was not easy. Given that I had a knee operation, I needed help to even move around in my house let alone other things, but I guess it’s all part of a sportsperson’s life. I have taken it in my stride and moved on,” she said.

The health competition in the national side bodes well for the future, but that also puts more pressure on any player making a comeback after a long lay-off. “Any player will find a comeback tough, especially after coming off a prolonged injury. Healthy competition is good for the team as it put all every player on their toes and leaves little room for complacency. So, that way it was important for me to perform in Glasgow and Incheon as I was determined to cement my spot in the Indian team,” she said.

The Indian women’s team have shown signs of marked improvement in recent times in terms of rising to the occasion against teams ranked higher than them. They defeated higher ranked China to win the bronze at the 2013 Asia Cup in Ipoh and nearly played out a draw against them in the Incheon Asian Games.

The Blueksirts eventually got the better of higher ranked Japan to corner the bronze medal. “The girls have put in a lot of effort and we are beginning to gel as a unit. I think we have the team to beat teams like New Zealand, Korea, China and England, but yes it will take some time before we can match teams like the Netherlands, Argentina, Australia and Germany,” she said.

One thing Kaur, who made her senior international debut during a Test series against Japan in 2010, is bullish about is the team’s fitness levels. “There was a time when people used to say that the fitness levels of Indian players were low but not anymore. We have really worked hard on our fitness and I don’t think this aspect is an issue anymore as we can hold our own against the top teams,” she said.

The defender accentuated the need for playing more international tournaments in order to keep the performance bar high. “Look, we won the bronze medal at the 2013 Asia Cup in Ipoh in September and then after a long gap we played a Test series against Malaysia, followed by the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games. The more we play the better we will get,” she remarks.

Last and not the least, when we can see our women’s team attain a podium finish at the Olympics? “That is the ultimate dream of any player, but I think we should first concentrate on qualifying for the Olympics and featuring in major international tourneys like the World Cup and Champions Trophy. Once we improve our world ranking, we can play these sides regularly which will be a good thing for us,” she said.

Kaur, who has completed her graduation, is keen to land a government job. “I have done the form-filling exercise for Railways, let’s see what happens. Having a job will give a big boost to my playing career,” she said.
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