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How an accidental handball player became India captain: Atul Kumar

Captain of the Indian national team and PHL (Premier Handball League) team Rajasthan Patriots, Atul Kumar has found his identity on the handball court.

How an accidental handball player became India captain: Atul Kumar

India handball captain Atul Kumar


Dipankar Lahiri

Updated: 30 May 2023 9:30 AM GMT

Atul Kumar always knew it was written in his destiny to make a name for himself in sports, but he had to deal with doubts at every step of the way.

Now the captain of the Indian national team and PHL (Premier Handball League) team Rajasthan Patriots, the 32-year-old is more at ease with his achievements and the status of his sport.

“In India, cricket is everywhere, you cannot escape it. But handball is quickly emerging, we reached the IHF Emerging Nations semis for the first time this year. Kabaddi was nowhere earlier, now the league has brought it to everyone’s lips. Maybe the same can happen with handball,” the veteran told The Bridge on the eve of the inaugural PHL season, starting June 8.

Like most kids in the country who think their destiny is in sports, Atul Kumar initially tried his hand in cricket in his hometown of Chandigarh, but soon found the going tough there. He shifted to handball because that was the only alternative in his school. He thought he would be a goalkeeper because it looked like the easiest thing to do, but he would soon be proved very wrong.

“I thought goalkeepers need to run less, it would be the easiest thing to do. But then I realised how tough a job it is. You can get hit on your face, or anywhere in your body…,” he said with a smile.

“But as my achievements started piling up, handball slowly became my passion. Now it has become my life,” he added.

Atul Kumar had found his place in life - blocking the goal in a handball court (a very proactive role, given that a goal is scored every 10 seconds in a match) - but the doubts lingered.

Having lost his father at a young age, Atul only had his mother for support. And his mother was initially wary about her only son trying his luck in an obscure sport like handball.

“Initially, there was talk of me not amounting to anything, of me falling into the trap of addiction, my mother was worried. But she stuck by me and it is to make her happy that I still play. To see a smile on her face because of how I perform is what keeps me motivated,” he said.

Atul had been playing for India in the junior level since 2004, but it was only after his Air Force job in 2012 that he got called up to the senior national team for the first time. He has been part of the Indian team for a decade since then and was the captain of the team when India went on a giant-killing run last month.

“Becoming India captain was like the end of the struggle,” Atul said.

The new role has also seemed to bring out the best in him. At the IHF Emerging Nations Championship last month, he had the most saves (37) at the end of the group stage, with a saving efficiency of 40.6 percent.

Now at the helm of Rajasthan Patriots, one of the six franchises in the PHL, Atul hopes that having a handball league in the country will help India match up to the top Asian nations.

“What we lack is international exposure. Top teams in Asia like Iran, Iraq, Korea, Japan already have leagues, we were missing that. Soon, we shall also be on Asian Games handball medal tally,” he said.

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