April 19, 2012 1:30:28 am
At 17,he looked set to break into the senior India hockey team. Months later,his career was thought to be over. At 21,Lalit Kumar Upadhyay is back he has been voted Rookie of the Year at the recent World Series Hockey (WSH) tournament,and is now being hailed as among the best in the game.
It was a sting operation by Aaj Tak that snuffed out Upadhyays career right when it was taking off. Reporters from the channel posing as Uttar Pradesh-based promoters approached Indian Hockey Federations then secretary-general K Jothikumaran in April 2008 and offered to sponsor a tournament. They added that they were ready to pay to ensure that a fringe player from their region was selected to the Indian team.
Though the name of the fringe player was edited out during the telecast of the sting operation,speculation began over who it was. And all fingers pointed in one direction.
Varanasi boy Upadhyay was the only player from Uttar Pradesh in the senior India team probables list at that time. When a probe began into the matter,officials leaked his name. Then,in one of the transcripts of the sting operation that appeared in the media,Upadhyay was mentioned. Despite the fact that the reporters were only posing as promoters,and despite the fact that it was a fake offer meant only to trap Jothikumaran,it was Upadhyay who paid the highest price.
In the clean-up operation that followed the telecast,the IHF was suspended,the Indian Olympic Association took charge of the sport and the tainted Upadhyay was swept off the radar of selectors. Senior players,including Arjun Halappa,Dilip Tirkey,Vikram Pillay and Deepak Thakur,among others,returned to the national team; many of the new foreign coaches who came in hadnt even heard of Upadhyay.
It was former India captain Dhanraj Pillay who stepped in to help,getting Upadhyay a deal with Air India to play on a monthly stipend. Upadhyay went on one more tour with the junior India team,to Malaysia in 2009. However,that seemed to be the end of his career till the WSH,and his selection to the Bhopal Badshahs team.
The barbs didnt stop. Log bolte the main ghoos de ke khela hun (People used to say that I am playing because I bribed my way through), Upadhyay says. However,with his performance,he shut all those voices. Upadhyay was named rookie of the year because of the speed he showed in the wings and his ability to not only control the ball but also create chances down either flank.
Following the Rs 10 lakh prize money,the comments directed his way have changed he now hears praise for his talent as well as regret for what happened to him.
Pillay says there is none in the country who can play better in the right-in and right-out position that Upadhyay occupies. Then national coach Joaquim Carvalho calls him exceptional and rues that the sting operation ensured that his talent was never utilised. Remembering how Upadhyays world changed in a matter of days,Carvalho says: The poor boy had no role to play in the incident. He was just 17 when he played for India under-21 side.
However,the best praise has come from Pakistan legend Shahbaz Ahmed. During a WSH technical review committee meeting,says Carvalho,Ahmed told him: That boy Lalit,he plays like me… The boy is exceptionally talented. For the uninitiated,thats similar to what Don Bradman said for Sachin Tendulkar.
Officials of Aaj Tak refused to comment on the matter. When asked if Upadhyays name was used in the sting,Q W Naqvi,news director-editorial,TV Today Network Ltd,said: We will revert after checking the facts. It may take some time as the story is old. Fifteen days later,no further information had been given by him.
Recalling his struggle,Upadhyay says it hadnt been easy for him to get back into the game. On that night after the sting operation,my phone rang incessantly. I was rattled. I had no idea how to deal with such a situation. I lost all hope and went into depression, he says.
Still bewildered,Upadhyay adds: Till date I dont know why my name was dragged into the sting operation. I was 17,training with the national squad. I didnt even know what a sting operation meant. Suddenly,for no fault of mine,I was ignored.
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