Ipoh, Malaysia: The rise of Harmanpreet Singh as one of the best players in the current Indian hockey team is a perfect example of what proper grooming and timely introduction into the top-flight can do to a young player.
An established goal-scoring machine at the junior level, the Amritsar lad put up a drag-flicking tutorial here at the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup 2017 on Sunday — slamming the ball into New Zealand net twice in India's comprehensive 3-0 win.
Also Read: Harmanpreet Slams Brace As India Blank Kiwis 3-0
A fierce ground-shot, followed by an aerial flick by Harmanpreet kept the Black Sticks' goalkeeper guessing, and even replacing Richard Joyce with Devon Manchester didn't do the trick for the Kiwis.
Since learning nuances of the game at Jalandhar's Surjit Hockey Academy, Harmanpreet has earned the ground he is starting to rule now.
With scoring goals always on his mind, he wanted to be a forward. But his height, strong built and burly shoulders made him more suited as a defender. Eventually, he added drag-flicks to his repertoire.
Harmanpreet's first share of stardom arrived during the 2014 Sultan of Johor Cup - the annual under-21 tournament in Malaysia. In Johor Bahru, he grabbed the headlines with seven goals during the league stage and two in the final, heloing India claim the tile. Personal glory wasn't far from him either as he was awarded the 'Player of the Tournament Trophy'.
Such performances were difficult to ignore and Harmanpreet was awarded with senior debut at the 2016 Sultan Azlan Shah Cup, followed by his maiden appearance in the Olympics at Rio de Janeiro.
However, at the Rio Games and the subsequent Junior World Cup in Lucknow, the defender didn't do justice to his growing reputation, erring far too often.
Though India won the Junior World Cup, Harmanpreet failed to deliver on a consistent basis — leaving his performances throughout the tournament as nothing more than flash in the pan.
"He is young and needs to perform under pressure. In the Junior World Cup, he didn't have too many goals, to be honest," said India coach Roelant Oltmans.
JUGRAJ'S INTRODUCTION AS COACH
It seems the appointment of former India defender Jugraj Singh as drag-flicking coach has done the trick and fine-tuned the little flaws that crept into Harmanpreet's flicks.
"I am happy with the way Jugraj is working," Oltmans continued. "Both Harman and Rupinder (Pal Singh) are fantastic drag-flickers. Harman proved it with two fantastic goals. He is looking fantastic in training sessions too."
LEAVING RUPINDER, RAGHUNATH BEHIND?
Rupinder Pal slammed 11 goals during the Asian Champions Trophy last year. He was the clear No. 1 in terms of drag-flickers in India's ranks. But since then, his conversion rate has dipped.
VR Raghunath's story has take a turn for the worse. Dropped from even the probables' camp ahead of the ongoing Sultan Azlan Shah Cup, Raghunath will have to slug it out in the domestic circuit to regain his place, but if Harmanpreet keeps slamming the ball in, the improbable comeback will become even more arduous for the veteran.
NO. 1 IN NEXT TWO YEARS?
If Oltmans' prediction is to be believed, Harmanpreet is in the fast lane to become the best in the world.
"In two years' time, Harman may become the best drag-flicker in the world. But he needs to be at his best in the next couple of tournaments, and the only way to test him is let him take more balls," Oltmans said.Looking at Harmanpreet's steady graph and rise up the ranks, he will know what processes to follow; and with Oltmans at the helm taking care of the young guns, the prodigy is for sure in safe hands.