Shahbad Markanda, a sleepy Haryana town situated on the banks of NH-1 (aka GT Road) has made a sporting mark. While Hockey in India today is but a shadow of its former past, this town has kept the spirit alive. Shahbad has produced 36 international women hockey players till date. Some of India's best forward players—like Sandeep Kaur, Suman Bala, Rajni Bala, Bhupinder Kaur, Rajwinder Kaur and Joydeep Kaur—have been the products of this Nursery. For the last fifteen years Haryana has been an undisputed leader in women's hockey at the national level; no other state (including its cousin Punjab) is of any match to Haryana. The credit for this revamp goes to the nursing at Shahbad.
There were times, not so long ago, when at least 8 players of India's women's hockey team were from this nursery alone; even now this number remains around four or five. If women's hockey is Shahbad's USP, then men's hockey is its hidden virtue. This place has also given us some of the best men's hockey players. Who can forget Sanjeev Kumar's prolific movement on the turf; and Sandeep Singh, today the world's best drag flicker – both are products of this Nursery. “Indian Hockey owes much to this place. It would be no exaggeration to say that a team constituted from all the other states of India would not be able to beat the present team of Haryana. We have given some of the best players in the men's section also,” said Baldev Singh, the coach.
Shahbad Nursery goes back to 1982, when it started in one of the private schools of the town. “Many a times we had asked the government of Haryana to give us a separate land, but it didn't happen. Then in the year 2004, the then Sports Director of Haryana, S.S Dhesi, realised our potential, and allowed us to use the ground of this adjacent government school; and in 2005, again by his grace, we got this turf here,” said Baldev Singh, who is an employee of the Haryana government. “I have been living here for quite a while now, and now I think of Haryana as my home. Punjab has made me offers for coaching their team, but I don't want to leave this place. All the hard work done by me and these girls would go in vain. I have been given extension by the Haryana government thrice, as the CM himself wants me to take care of this place. I believe this girl, and the present crop of young players here, is extremely talented, and would surely represent India in the future,” said Baldev Singh, while pointing towards Ritu, a young promising player (see picture below).
Baldev Singh was also associated with the training of the Indian men’s team, as a colleague of Rajinder Singh Senior. The Rajinder-Baldev team has produced excellent results.
Till 1995, Shahbad was known more for its historic temple named after a Hindu saint, Rishi Markandeya, a great follower of Lord Shiva. Now it is one of 20-odd Indian towns that has a synthetic hockey playfield. Shahbad has produced captains of both the Indian men's and women's teams. The men’s skipper has been the famous drag flicker Sandeep Singh, while Sandeep Kaur had led India’s women's team. Though Haryana cannot match the contribution of its neighbour Punjab in the field of men's hockey, it has earned a big name for itself during the past 16 years – producing 36 women and 7 men players who have represented India in various international tournaments (Olympic games, World Cups, Asia Cups and Asian Games). The players have earned a reputation for their superb ball control skills, delectable body swerves, and commitment to the game. “We pick players from the poor families of the near by farmers. The only thing we look for in a player is the talent, and the will to do something. The rest is taken care of by us. The Shahbad Nursery is more than a hockey field, because the players here are like a family – they share each others' moments of grief as well as happiness,” added Baldev Singh. The Nursery also boasts an ultra-modern gymnasium.
When India won the first Champions Challenger II gold at Kazan in Russia, five girls from Shahbad were in the playing XI. These girls – Jasdip Kaur (goalkeeper), Joydeep (fullback), Surinder Kaur, Ritu Rani and Ritu Rampal (all forwards) – also impressed the spectators and other teams there with their superb ball control and display. When Surinder played her first national championship for Haryana in mid 90s, she emerged the top scorer, with 33 goals to her credit. Nick-named ‘Goal Machine”, she has been one of the most prolific goal scorers for India for the past 10 years. Two of her colleagues—Ritu Rani and Rani Rampal—also did extremely well in Kazan. Rani Rampal, now a student of Grade 11 at Government Senior Secondary School, was the tournament’s top scorer, with an individual tally of eight goals. Ritu Rani scored three goals, all against Canada. Of the 26 goals scored by India, 18 came from three Shahbad girls – a no mean achievement.
A future star, Jaspreet Kaur, is shaping up well, to man India’s defence in future international matches. Baldev Singh had been a fullback himself during his playing days. Besides Jaspreet, other promising youngsters are Meenakshi Junior, Sandeep Kaur Junior, Jasdeep Kaur, Ramanik Kaur and Jasjeet Kaur. The only sad aspect has been that six of the top players lost their fathers early, and were single-handedly brought up by their basically illiterate and hardworking mothers. “I am from a joint family. I had lost my father at an early age, and my mother brought me up with the help of my uncles and aunts. My family has been a constant support, and they never let my practice get hindered because of any issue. Right now I am employed with the Indian Railways, said the young Jasjeet Kaur, who has captained India at multiple levels. Since Shahbad does not have much to offer for entertainment, the only pastime for the girls has been hockey. They all eat, sleep and dream hockey.
Description of a day at Shahbad
Shahbad is still one of those towns where the day starts with the first light of the morning – and the Nursery is not an exception. “Our training starts around 7:30 in the morning, and it lasts till 10:30, or sometimes eleven. Right now most of the senior players have their jobs, and the juniors go to school, but training is a must for everybody; the coach is quite strict in this regard. The evening training begins at 3:30, after the turf is drenched with water. The training lasts till 7 pm; different groups of senior and junior players practice in the field,” said Jasjeet. “We have kept a grass ground for the new recruits, where they can become habitual to the basics of the game. The ball comes very fast on the turf, and it can hurt a newcomer,” said Baldev Singh. “We receive a good diet here at the stadium itself, and it's free of cost. We get a mix of boiled nuts to start the day, as it helps immensely in building stamina for the constant running on the turf. After two hours of rigorous practice we get milk, and bread pakora. Similarly, in the evening we get another snack and juice. We have also been instructed by the coach to not have any fried food at home or elsewhere. We have to keep our diet limited and healthy,” said Harpreet Kaur, another senior player.
Who's the close competitor?
Shahbad has given Haryana an undisputed hegemony in the national circuits in women's hockey for the last fifteen years. But when it came to name the toughest competitor, the girls, as well as the coach, started thinking deeply. I was expecting the answer to be Punjab, but it didn't feature in the list of either the coach or the girls; in fact they refused to accept Punjab as a competitor at all. “We have beaten them repeatedly in the recent years. We believe that the girls from states like Jharkhand and Odisha are quite tough to beat. They not only have good skills, but also great stamina to support their skills. We believe they can excel, provided they are given enough backing from their respective states,” said the girls and the coach unanimously.
Shahbad girls, being a part of the Indian team that plays abroad, have learnt a great deal from the players of the western countries. “I have been to Australia, Netherlands, Paris and Spain, and every time we go there we learn a great deal. Indeed they have better facilities than us, and that's why they prevail in the games. But they too admire our skills on the turf, because most of the players in these countries play the power game, while we play more passes and dribbling,” said Jasjeet. Asked whether they get nervous after landing in the western countries, since most of the girls are from humble backgrounds, and with a not-so-good command over English, she added, “Obviously it used to happen a lot, and we were very nervous initially. But after spending some time with the players of other countries we now converse with them quite easily. Our coaches and support staff also help us in doing so.”
Indian Railways: the only taker
The girls and their families clearly can do with financial support. Till now only the Indian Railways has stepped forward in support; most of the senior players have been given jobs by the Railways. The State government, despite being the sole managing body of the Nursery, hasn't done much for these girls and their families. “We receive good facilities here, inside the premises, including a good steady diet. But when it comes to jobs, we have not been given any proper opportunities, like other sports players of the State. Most of us work with the Railways. Only one player from the Shahbad Hockey Nursery, Surender Kaur, has been made a DSP by the Haryana government, whereas various players from boxing and wrestling have been given jobs of an elite profile,” said Harpreet Kaur. She, like Jasjeet, works with the Railways.
Bhupinder Kaur (Bhim Awardee)
Sandeep Kaur (Bhim Awardee)
Suman Bala (Bhim Awardee)
Surender Kaur (Arjuna Awardee)
Gurpreet Kaur (Bhim Awardee)
Simarjeet Kaur (Bhim Awardee)
Jasjeet Kaur (Arjuna Awardee+Bhim Awardee)
Balwinder Kaur (Bhim Awardee)
Rajwinder Kaur (Bhim Awardee)
Joydeep Kaur (Bhim Awardee)
Sanjiv Kumar Dang (Olympian) (Bhim Awardee)
Sandeep Singh (Olympian)