Among the newest members of the Indian hockey men’s squad, Raj Kumar Pal has not taken much time to settle in.
He only made his debut for the senior side in the FIH Pro League match against Belgium in February and is now working hard to establish himself as as an integral member of the team.
“My only aim now is to give my 100 per cent for the team, stay focused in everyday training and try to make the squad for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics," he told Hockey India.
The 21-year-old has already scored two goals for the senior side last month - a brace against Australia to get India back into the game against the multiple-time world champions.
A debut against the reigning world champions may be a daunting task for some but the young Indian hockey player knew exactly what he had to do to make an impression on head coach Graham Reid.
“My focus was on executing the role that the coach had entrusted me with,” he stated. “Playing against the world champions in my first international match was the biggest moment of my life and I wanted to ensure I lived up to the expectations.”
The Australian coach also took some extra time to explain to the youngster the nuances of playing for the Indian hockey team.
“Coach Reid is very patient and explains to me what exactly I need to focus on and how I need to cope with the demands of hockey at this level,” said Raj Kumar Pal.
“Though I did have awareness about the fitness required at this level, understanding small things like not to hold the ball too long and general tactical awareness is something I had to work on.”
Raj Kumar Pal's quick rise to the senior side
Like many others in the Indian hockey team, Raj Kumar Pal started playing hockey at an early age and made waves with his skills on the stick at an U-14 tournament in Uttar Pradesh in 2010.
High-performance director David John then spotted his talent at the Sports Authority of India (SAI) Hostel in 2018 and called him up for a national camp with the senior Indian hockey men’s team, where he took a while to adapt.
“It took me a while to get used to the training techniques and game-sense. I used to feel a lot of pressure initially because the hockey we played back home was very different from what the senior team played,” he said.
However, Indian hockey forward Lalit Upadhyay, who also hails from Uttar Pradesh, helped the then 19-year-old through the tough period.
“I was constantly encouraged by Lalit bhai who made me understand that it was important to stick to 'simple hockey' and not feel pressurised.”
The role of the forward line has become more pivotal to the way the Indian hockey team plays ever since Graham Reid took over as head coach and Raj Kumar Pal is another addition to the enviable list of attackers they possess.
The 21-year-old’s opportunism and ability to think out of the box came to the fore during his two-goal haul against Australia and he is certain to make the Indian hockey squad for the 2020 Olympics if he continues to deliver compelling performances.