Five minutes had passed in the practice game between India and The Netherlands before jersey numbers 13 and 22 got substituted into play. But neither Affan Yousuf (13) nor Yuvraj Walmiki (22) would have been complaining much about not starting the game.
The two would rather have been glad simply to get a chance.
The two strikers were the surprise inclusions in the 18-member Indian squad for the Hero Hockey World League named on Wednesday. Only a couple of weeks back observers wouldn’t have been faulted for presuming they weren’t in the scheme of things. Walmiki, 22, hadn’t played for the India team since April last year and wasn’t even included in a 48-member camp ahead of the Asia Cup in August. Yousuf, meanwhile, hadn’t even been selected for the Junior World Cup in December last year.
Speaking of the two’s selection, national coach Terry Walsh says “Sometimes opportunity comes to you at the most unexpected of times.” That could hardly be more appropriate than in the case of Yousuf. The 19-year-old had won the player of the tournament at the hockey nationals last year, then was named vice captain of the junior team which won gold at the Sultan Johor Cup. Yousuf was expected to be a shoo-in for the Junior World Cup before his unexpected axing.
“I was very upset when I wasn’t selected for the Junior World Cup,” says Yousuf. However he says the dismay quickly turned to motivation. “There wasn’t any point staying depressed about it. My father told me that I would get my opportunity at the right time and in some time and I too felt that whether it was the World League or the HIL, I would work to prove myself once again,” he says. So when Yousuf got the call for the 28-man preparatory squad for the World League, he was determined to give it his best shot.
It was a similar sentiment to Walmiki after he was himself dropped in August. Chief selector BP Govinda had said the striker, who had scored the tournament winning penalty at the 2011 Asian Champions Trophy, had been dropped for fitness issues. “I knew that I was going to get a chance at some point to get back in to the team and I wanted to make sure that I made that opportunity count. I didn’t want anyone to say ‘look at him, he sat out of the game for six months and his hasn’t done any fitness in that time,” Walmiki says.
Walmiki accepts that perhaps six months back he was complacent. “At that time I could have worked harder on my fitness. I got into a situation where I assumed that I was part of a camp and that I would automatically be selected for the next camp. I took things a bit easy. But you can’t take things lightly if you want to play for the India team,” he says.
Walmiki credits support from senior players like Sardar Singh, Raghunath, SV Sunil and Rupinderpal for keeping him focused. “Whenever I would talk to them, they would tell me about what they were doing in the camp and that way, even I knew how much I had to work. They also told me that they believed in me. I didn’t want to let myself down and I certainly didn’t want to let my seniors who believed in me down,” he says.
When the two got their chance at the preparatory camp they made sure they were noticed. “Both were obviously very talented and he showed that in our recent camp,” says Walsh. But for all their hard work and determination, Yousuf and Walmiki had a bit of luck going their way. Of the nine strikers named in the preparatory squad, four — Nithin Thimmaiah, Akashdeep Singh, Ramandeep Singh and Gurwinder Singh Chandi — were ruled out injured. “Undoubtedly fortune has been on their side. They always had the talent but not the exposure Now they have the opportunity as well,” says Walsh.
While both Walmiki and Yousuf are determined to make their chance count, they have a stiff task ahead considering all but one of their opponents are ranked higher than them. In their practice game against Netherlands, India lost 4-0.