For the longest time, the sporting landscape of Haryana has been defined by boxing, wrestling and even kabaddi.
But quietly, away from the spotlight, a 19th century sport that has its origins in Scandinavia and Germany is gaining traction through the state's hinterland with its practitioners asserting that it is changing lives one goal at a time.
Handball, which became an Olympic sport back in 1972 at the ill-fated Munich Games, came to India the same year and at present has a registered player pool of more than 80,000, according to the national federation.
It is an uncomplicated seven-a-side sport comprising two halves of 30 minutes each, during which players move the ball by passing, dribbling, or hitting it with any part of their bodies above the knee.
And while doing so, the team that scores more goals wins the match. It is played in over 180 countries and Europe dominates the Olympic medal standings.
The soon-to-be-launched Premier Handball League is looking to add a tinge of glamour and loads of money to its growth with the organisers promising an investment of Rs 240 crore over the next five years. The league, which is set to be held next year, has unveiled three franchises so far.
For the those who play handball, it is much more than mere economics. To them, it's a sport that has helped "bhaichara" in their villages and also kept the social evils like the menace of drug abuse in check.
Take for instance, Sombir, who has already been a part of the Indian team that has to its credit a 2019 South Asian Games silver medal and a bronze in the Commonwealth Championships.
He hails from Jhajjar's Burana village and took up the sport as it was "always popular where I grew up". His love for it is intact despite the fact that he lost his elder brother in 2018 to a freak accident on the field of play and his mother to COVID-19 last year.
"Ours is a village of around 12 to 13,000 people and I can tell you, every house has a member who plays handball for leisure or professionally," the 27-year-old told PTI when asked when and how he was introduced to the sport.
"I love the sport, it gave me a sense of purpose in life, got me a job with the Indian Railways and kept me afloat in worst of times. It helped me provide a steady income to my family and that means a lot because I grew up the hard way amid financial constraints," said the goalkeeper who began pursuing handball seriously back in 2010.
How it has helped the community is something that he asserted in this conversation.
"Bhaichara badhaya hai gaon mein (It has helped create brotherhood). Everyone plays this sport not just in our village but several other villages like Karor (in Rohtak), Dighal (in Jhajjar) and Dhanana (Bhiwani)," he said.
"We have these local village competitions where so many youngsters compete and there is a culture of lending support to those who want to play this sport. It has helped maintain harmony," he added.
Handball is recognised by the Sports Ministry and was a made part of the Kehlo India Youth Games earlier this year.
While it was a definitive career choice for Sombir, handball was an escape from punishment for Naveen Punia, who is also a popular Haryanvi singer and a Havildar in the Indian Army.
The 31-year-old hails from Ladwa village in Hisar and his father worked as a labourer, while his mother was a bangle seller.
"Low income family se hun ji, sarkari school mein padhte the aur late aane pe maar lagti thi (I come from a low income family and was studying in a government school where punishment for coming late was a thrashing). At that time handball was just taking off in our side," he said.
"One day while I was in line to get the beating after showing up late I noticed that the teachers were sparing those who were handball players, while someone like me ended up being slapped.
"I thought becoming a handball player could save me from this and it did," he said breaking into a hearty laugh while recalling how he was introduced to the sport.
He soon realised that the sport was one of his callings in life aside from a flourishing career as a youtube singer.
In 2007, he was selected to train in the Sports Authority of India Centre in Hisar and that gave wings to his efforts of having a better life, the one in which his house did not have a leaky roof every monsoon.
His moment of fame as a player was a last-minute goal against arch-foes Pakistan during the 2018 Asian Games that helped India win the match.
"I think I am among the pioneers of handball in my village, as in making it to the Indian team. In fact, our village was battling the drug menace and handball helped in making a change to that.
"We got together and started promoting the sport and also the fact that it got me a job in the Indian Army. It made youngsters hopeful, some took up the sport to get a job and that was huge," he said.
How does he balance his passion for singing with handball? "They are interlinked, every time I feel I am not up to in sport, I find inspiration in music to get back in form. And every time I get stuck in music, a good game helps me regain my creativity," said the versatile man, who does an average of about 10 live shows every month in peak season.
There are several like them, who are part of handball's gradual rise in not just Haryana but also in Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh. And they are not hopeful but confident that handball has all that it takes to be the next big thing on the Indian sporting horizon.
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