Last year,when Pune made its debut as an IPL franchise,only one Maharashtra player,Shrikant Mundhe,made an appearance for the Warriors,playing just one match in which he bowled just one over and didnt get to bat. In the I-League,Pune FCs senior squad features only one Pune-bred player,midfielder Paresh Shivalkar,who tends to spend most matches on the bench.
However,after all these discouraging signs,the city has gotten off to a more encouraging start in World Series Hockey with homegrown players forming an important part of the Pune Strykers lineup. Midfielder Vikas Pillay is always on coach Gundeep Kumars priority list while Vinod Nair has been deployed in multiple positions and Vikram Yadav regularly comes off the bench. Only Alvin Alexander can say he hasnt enjoyed much of an opportunity to display his talent so far.
All four hail from hockey-crazy Khadki and have known each other for nearly ten years,having played together at the Vikram Pillay Academy,run by the former India Olympian and Vikas older brother.
The academy started sometime around 2003 or 2004, said Vikas. We played together for the first time that year,and won the second division league and got promoted to the senior division,which we won the year after that. Since then,weve played together a lot,all of us being in the same age-group.
Vikram Pillay was a major influence on their development as players. At that stage,I couldnt afford hockey equipment, said Vinod. Whenever he came back from an international tournament,he would give me shoes or hockey sticks, he added. Even now,whenever he is in Pune we practice with him and play local tournaments, said Yadav. He guides us constantly,about things like tackling and positioning,where to move on the field,what to do in game situations. Weve always tried to play like him.
It isnt a coincidence,therefore,that all of them gravitate naturally to midfield,Vikram Pillays position. Which isnt to say that they arent versatile Alvin can also play up front,while Vinod spent Pune Strykers first two home games in deep defence.
Hes a good tackler,so our coach likes to play him at full back, said Vikas. But in the match in Chennai,he played at centre half position.
Vinod and Vikram have known each other since their school days,having partnered each other in midfield for SVS High School. I would play attacking midfield,and Vinod would play defensive midfield, said Vikram. The first year we played together,we beat St. Vincents in the Zilla Parishad under-17 final – that was the first and last time our school won that tournament.
Now,the quartet spend most of the year playing for institutional teams in Mumbai – Vikas and Vikram at Air India,Vinod for Central Railways and Alvin for Railway Protection Force. In Pune,we dont get that much exposure, said Vikas. All the (government) departments are in Mumbai.
Pune has a few tournaments,but they arent organised that well, said Alvin. And the grounds arent that good for practice. Balewadi and the PCMC ground have astroturf,but theyre too far away and they are used only for tournaments. They dont allow players to train there.
Players at the Vikram Pillay Academy train at the Ammunition Factory ground,where the playing surface isnt astroturf but grass. Mud,actually, said Alvin. Shifting from such a surface to astroturf is very difficult. All the basic skills change,since the game is much faster on astroturf. You need more stamina as well.
Despite the disadvantage of grounds,players from Khadki are reputed to possess a lot of skill. We tend to be quick and good dribblers, said Vikas. Dodging tackles comes easily to us. You can say its a god-gifted talent that all players from that area have.
The quartet wish that the Pune franchise could have snapped up fellow Khadkiites Vikram Pillay and,of course,the legendary Dhanraj Pillay (no relation) as well. It wasnt to be,however,as Vikram ended up at Chennai Cheetahs and Dhanraj at Karnataka Lions. We would have loved it if all the Pune players were in one team, said Vikas. But the seniors went to other teams while the juniors ended up in the same team.