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How Jugraj Singh inspired India to script a comeback for the ages

There is a trace of astonishment, a bewildering sense of ‘how did I do that’ as Jugraj Singh recalls charging towards Sohail Abbas without any protective gear. “Not even an abdomen guard,” he specifies.

The police officer has since engaged in life-threatening combats, be it gunning down three terrorists in the Gurdaspur anti-terror operation in 2015 or as a frontline Corona warrior right now. But at the time, 17 summers ago, stopping a Sohail Abbas drag-flick seemed to him as his biggest act of bravery.

And that is how India’s group-stage match against Pakistan at the 2003 Champions Trophy in Amstelveen is remembered even today. Not as a high-scoring thriller, not for Gagan Ajit Singh’s remarkable tomahawks, but simply as the ‘Jugraj Singh match.’ He stood out, not just because of the printed bandana. But because of his skills, speed and sheer bravado.

This was not a tactical battle. There was no deployment of cynical systems or employment of shrewd strategies. In the backyard of the sport’s greatest thinkers, who value playing within a structure over everything else, this match provided the guilty pleasure of watching two teams so fluid and a bunch of players so spontaneous that one simply had to stop fussing about defence lines not operating in sync or the midfield virtually being non-existent for large parts.

This was a breath-taking ode to sub-continental hockey: a compulsive, all-consuming urge to attack by two heavyweight sides comprising men who could do so stylishly. Pakistan had Rehan Butt, Waseem Ahmad, the two Alis – Muddassar and Ghazanfar – Mohammad Saqlain, Muhammad Nadeem, Zeeshan Ashraf and, of course, the legendary Abbas. India boasted of Pillay, the two Baljits — Dhillon and Saini — Dilip Tirkey and the bunch from its golden generation, the 2001 Junior World Cup-winning squad – Deepak Thakur, Gagan Ajit, Prabhjot Singh, Viren Rasquinha and, lest we forget, Jugraj.

As far as the quality of the line-ups go, one will be hard-pressed to find such heavily-loaded Indian and Pakistani teams since the turn of the century. There was a lot at stake, including reputations.
Jugraj Singh during the 6th All India Guru Gobind Singh Hockey Tournament in Ludhiana. (Express Archive: Gurmeet Singh)
The Champions Trophy, a now-defunct tournament, was the third-most important competition in the international hockey calendar after the Olympics and the World Cup. A mini-World Cup, if one may call it so, in which the top six of the world faced off in a league-cum-knockout format.

The match, played on a pleasant August evening, was the last of the group stage for both sides. Pakistan was a side teeming with confidence, having trounced Germany 5-2 in the previous match. And just how good they were in attack could be gauged by looking at the number of goals they scored in each match – four versus Australia, six against Argentina, two to hold the Netherlands and five against Germany. A win would have ensured them a place in the final for the first time in five years.

India, on the other hand, had just one win (3-2 vs Germany) and going into this match, had suffered two heavy defeats: 4-1 against Australia and 4-2 at the hands of Argentina. They weren’t in contention for the final, but still had a shot at bronze.

‘Apne dil di kar lo’

On the morning of the match against Pakistan, however, the team felt a little flat. “We sat together and were having a light chat, trying to understand the problem. We were playing well but were still losing,” Jugraj says. “There was pressure and the expectations were high. Losing the first game (4-3 to the Netherlands) was a setback. So before playing Pakistan, we told our coach (Rajinder Singh), let us relax.”

There was no elaborate strategising before the game. Rajinder, Jugraj says, gave the players just one advice: ‘apne dil di kar lo’ (do what your heart says). “So on the field, we were the players and we were the coach. Our coach gave us that much freedom,” Jugraj says.

For Jugraj, that freedom meant just one thing: putting his body on the line. He was moved from his usual role as a defender and placed on the right of midfield, to help the team in both setting up attacks as well as bailing out the defence.

But within seconds of the match starting, it became amply clear what his biggest challenge would be: stopping Abbas’ drag-flicks, which felt more like shells being fired from a howitzer. In those few seconds, however, it also became clear to Pakistan, and Abbas, that they were up against a stubborn, strongly-built defender who was prepared to risk his life but not let the ball past him.

“I admired Sohail bhai a lot. When you get a chance to play against a player whom you have seen when you started your career, it gives you an extra boost. So I just went all out, not thinking about the consequences,” Jugraj says.
Jugraj Singh (left) with team-mates at Sector 42 Hockey Stadium in Chandigarh. (Express Photo)
Back then, hockey’s rules allowed a first-rusher – the player responsible to charge out of the goal first and close down a drag-flicker’s angles – to directly run in the line of the ball (it has since been amended to ensure more safety and now, the defender ‘must be penalised for dangerous play’).

Pakistan earned a penalty corner from the game’s first play, in the opening minute, and just when Abbas was about to unleash his flick, Jugraj blocked it by allowing the ball to hit his body. “The rule was that if it hit the rusher’s body, above his knee, then it would be considered a foul by the attacking side. So that is how we chose to defend. It hurt, but at that moment you are not thinking about pain,” Jugraj says.

It became a trend: Pakistan’s corner, Abbas’ flick, Jugraj’s body. Pakistan coach Tahir Zaman called it a ‘suicide tactic.’ “At one point in the match, I remember Tahir bhai looking very annoyed and asking Sohail bhai to do something,” Jugraj recalls. Abbas, looking exasperated, turned to Zaman and replied: “kahan feku? Seedha aa raha hai (where should I flick? He is coming straight at me).

This was, however, the only battle India were winning – in the first half at least. The plethora of attacking options that Pakistan had on the field, and also on the bench, made sure India remained on the backfoot. India’s midfield, which had had an ordinary tournament, remained inconspicuous, and Pakistan scored three times in the first half hour.
Jugraj and Gagan Ajit Singh in a hotel at Barog in Himachal Pradesh. (Express Photo)

The comeback

But by half-time, just one goal separated the two teams, with Jugraj scoring the two goals to keep India in the tie. “The speed of counterattacks by both teams was so fast that it did not give us any time to think. So even when we were down by a couple of goals, we never really thought it was game over,” Jugraj says.

Soon after the restart, Abbas did manage to score, when Jugraj was not on the pitch, to put Pakistan 4-2 ahead. If this was a European side, or Australia for that matter, the strategy at 4-2 would have been to protect the lead first. But that’s not how sub-continental sides traditionally think and as Pakistan pressed for more, they became more vulnerable at the back and India clawed their way back into the game.

Jugraj was at the heart of it all. He scored the first two goals which kept India in the hunt and had a hand in the next two as well. In the 50th minute, he fluffed a penalty corner but kept possession by flicking the ball towards Dhillon in the ‘D’. He helped it towards Thakur, who touched it home from close range to cut the deficit. Then, four minutes later, Jugraj burst down the right, opened up the defence with a sublime through ball towards Thakur. He swerved a little and passed it to Prabhjot, who finished the move to make it 4-4.

India were not finished and it was now the turn of Gagan Ajit to show off his brilliance with his inimitable back-hand shots for goals. “We had great build-ups from the right and finishing from the left in that match,” Jugraj recalls. Proper ‘taal-mel’, he adds.

India scored five goals in 19 minutes to win that match 7-4. The 70 minutes showcased the depth of talent that team had. “Ric Charlesworth was the commentator. He said, ‘if I was the coach of this team, we would beat any side in the world’,” Jugraj recalls.

It was also a game that left many walking wounded. Jugraj, himself, had to hobble off the pitch to recover from the blows but remained in a state of trance. “I did not have even 0.01 per cent fear,” the policeman says. “You could put the body in line for the country.”

Seventeen years later, and after a road accident that cruelly cut short a promising career, Jugraj is still doing that.


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