Chandigarh: There is a petrol station at the cross-section where the dusty bylanes of the two adjoining villages of Nangal and Kundli meet the national highway at Sonipat in Haryana. When Vikas Khatri, the former rugby captain who has represented India, looks at the life-size hoardings of Olympic medal winners here, he says he is reminded of a dream that he had 12 years ago.
It was the culmination of the 2010 Commonwealth Games at Delhi. Nine boys, some of them budding wrestlers and kabaddi players from two adjoining villages of Haryana –Nangal, and Kundli, were among the spectators at those Commonwealth Games finals between Australia and New Zealand. New Zealand won the gold medal, and Australia was the runners-up.
This hi-octane game instantly attracted these nine boys which was in some respects similar to kabaddi and wrestling, at least in so far as they also are contact sports. And so they thought to give it a shot.
In the ongoing 36th National Games at Ahmedabad, Haryana won the gold medal in the rugby sevens (rugby played with seven players) game. This is the second consecutive gold Haryana has won in rugby at the National Games, the first being in 2015. What is interesting is that the Indian rugby team has 10 players (including three extras) from these two villages of Haryana, who were once the spectators at the Commonwealth Games 2010.
Deepak Kumar Punia is the rugby captain of India from Hisar. Vikas Khatri, Prince Khatri, Mohit Khatri, Neeraj and Anuj Pal are from Kundli, and Tilak Raj, Salim, Mohit Tusheer, and Yogesh Kumar are from Nangal. Pranay Kumar is from Faridabad and Ajay is from Bahadurgarh. These men more or less comprise India’s team rugby as well.
Since 2010, there has been another change. The life-size celebratory posters at petrol stations have been replaced from those of now jailed wrestler Sushil Kumar, shuttler Saina Nehwal and boxer Vijender Singh to the new generation Haryanvi Olympic medal winners — Ravi Dahiya, Bajrang Punia, and Sakshi Malik.
But there is a silent sporting revolution happening a stone’s throw away from the highway at Sonipat. Kuldeep Nangal, uncle of Tilak Raj one of the Haryana team players says, “One day, you will see lifesize posters of rugby players from our villages on the highway.
At 39, my nephew Tilak Raj an India team player may not see his life-size hoardings there, but some youngster who is dreaming and sweating it out right now may. We do not know his name. Who knew Mahender Singh Dhoni? He was living in obscurity. But someone like him very soon will make us proud.”
Tilak Raj, at just 5 feet and eight inches is well past his prime. At 39, Tilak says, “I am the oldest rugby player who plays for India. It was 10 years of hard work. But my objective was to inspire youngsters from the nearby villages. Thankfully, it has started paying off. The next generation is almost ready to take on the mantle.”
Another village elderly Survinder Dabas adds, “These players may not have their hoardings on petrol stations but they are often seen on the wallpapers of the mobile phones of youngsters here. Children from adjoining villages come to click selfies with them.”
Mohit Khatri another national rugby player from Kundli says, “We began with a bronze at the 2007 National Games, then won a silver at 2011 games, and then gold medals in 2015 and 2022. Things are only looking brighter from here.” Kuldeep Nangal sums it up, “Yo to inn bachya ki mehnat kaa shor se” (This noise of celebration is the result of the hard work these boys put in throughout these years in silence).