At 17, Sukhvinder is the youngest member of the junior India hockey team, carrying a weight of expectations in the backline. Coach CR Kumar rests assured on the bench that every time an opposition striker charges towards the Indian goal, he will have to get past Sukhvinder before reaching the keeper.

Sukhvinder is the youngest member of the junior India hockey team(Hockey India)

The sense of responsibility is ingrained in Sukhvinder, having learnt it the hard way while growing up.

The defender was 14 when his father, a labourer in Habri village of Kaithal district of Haryana, was electrocuted that left him incapable of working. Immediately burdened with the economic responsibilities, Sukhvinder’s mother was out searching for a job when she died in a road accident the very next day. This was in 2021.

The emotional as well as financial burden of the father, two sisters and Sukhvinder fell on the shoulders of the eldest brother who began working as a labourer. One of the sisters also started working as a farm hand to make ends meet.

As things got tougher at home, Sukhvinder realised that he can no longer be a ‘burden’ on his family. There was only one thing that could help him he thought – hockey. “Whatever I am today, whatever little I have achieved is because of hockey,” Sukhvinder said over a video call from Kuala Lumpur.

Sukhvinder started playing hockey as a nine-year-old in 2015 watching his village elders, who would play at a local ground. “We used to play on dirt earlier but my interest in the sport spiked when a sports hostel was built and a turf laid in my village,” said Sukhvinder.

A couple of village seniors, Railways coach Ramesh Kumar and Armyman Sanjeev, gifted shoes, hockey sticks and kit to Sukhvinder. Village seniors suggested him to trial for the Sports Authority of India (SAI) centre in Sonipat, which was 100km away.

The Haryana player cracked the SAI trials in 2021, beginning his hockey journey. At Sonipat, he found himself in the able hands of Piyush Dubey, who was also a coach of the India team back then. Dubey was quick to notice his speed, ability to push forward, and his technique.

Another factor that separated Sukhvinder from the others was penalty corners (PC). While he carried a fearless approach as a first rusher during PCs, he also a decent drag-flicker. “I learnt everything at SAI. Whenever Piyush sir visited the centre from the national camp, he spent time with us,” said Sukhvinder.

He played his first sub-junior nationals in 2021 when he guided Haryana to a silver. Last year, he again took Haryana to quarter-finals of the same event before giving trials for the junior national camp when junior India coach Kumar selected him for the core group in January.

His rise continued in domestic hockey as he guided Haryana to a bronze in his maiden Junior Nationals in June before making his international debut at the Hockey5s Asia Cup in September which India won. He also helped Indian juniors claim a bronze at the Sultan of Johor Cup in November. During the process, he also won the Khelo India scholarship worth Rs.10,000 per month.

Playing in only his third international event, Sukhvinder hopes to return with a medal from the Junior World Cup as India face Spain for a bronze on Saturday. “I am the first international player from my village. My village will feel good if I return home with a medal,” said Sukhvinder.

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