In November 2016, Vivek Sagar Prasad was battling for his life. A freak collar-bone injury during a practice match had led to severe complications and his promising career in hockey was in peril. But surgery, 72 hours of intensive care, bouts of depression and several months of rehab later, Prasad returned to the hockey field in mid-2017. Since then, the prodigious talent has been weaving magic.
Earlier this week, the 17-year-old midfielder became the youngest player picked for the men’s Commonwealth Games team after he was named in the 18-member Gold Coast-bound squad. His inclusion was surprising, considering he has played just one tournament. But even more surprising was the player he has replaced — former India captain Sardar Singh. For years, it was believed that it would take a special talent to replace Sardar Singh — regarded as the best player to have worn the India shirt in the last decade — in the national team.
“And Vivek is that special talent,” says Ashok Kumar, who scored the goal that won India its sole World Cup in 1975 and is the son of the legendary Dhyan Chand. Kumar first saw Prasad four years ago at a local tournament in Akola, Maharastra. Playing for a team from Tikamgarh against men twice his age on a pebble-laden grass turf, Prasad, just 13 years then, glided past them like they did not exist. The skills and ball control he showed reminded Kumar of his own playing days. “So after the match, I walked up to him (Prasad) and asked, bade level pe kheloge?(Will you play in the big league?),” he recalls.
Having grown up in a tiny house behind the Itarsi Ordnance Factory in Madhya Pradesh, Prasad did not hesitate before moving to Bhopal, where he stayed with Kumar. The 67-year-old Olympian spent the next three years nurturing the “best talent” he has come across at the Madhya Pradesh State Hockey Academy. Kumar describes his prodigy as a stylish player whose ball skills and body feints are a throwback to a bygone era.
“His anticipation, ball control and movement with the ball is really nice. He can wrong-foot the opponents and though he appears tiny, he can surprise you with his strength,” Kumar says. “He was a natural talent and I just had to polish him. We’ve had two world-class centre-halves – Ajit Pal Singh (captain of 1975 World Cup team) was one, Sardar was the other. Vivek has the potential to reach that level.”
It didn’t take long for the national team’s scouts to spot him, and in June 2015 Prasad, aged 15 then, was included in the core group of the 2016 junior World Cup, a tournament meant for players aged under 21. He was among the front-runners to be selected in the team. Until tragedy struck. “We were playing a practice match at our academy when Vivek beat a couple of defenders and ran to the far end of the ground. I couldn’t see what happened but the player tried to tackle him and it went horribly wrong,” says Kumar.
Instead of getting the ball, the rival player inadvertently ended up hitting Prasad on his left collarbone with the hockey stick. “He was hit with such force that his collarbone tore through the flesh. Injuries are routine when you play any sport, but this looked very serious. We rushed him to a nearby hospital where they had to conduct an immediate surgery,” he says. They fixed the collarbone but the process led to unforeseen complications. “Despite the surgery, the recovery wasn’t as quick as doctors expected. That’s when they found out there was fluid in his lungs,” Kumar says. “They continued his treatment but the doctors said if his condition did not improve in two or three days, anything could happen.”
After more than 72 hours in intensive care, Prasad showed signs of improvement and gradually pulled out of danger. Prasad realised the extent of his injury after regaining consciousness. He was told that the junior World Cup – which India eventually won after a gap of 15 years – was out of the question but there were also doubts if he could ever play hockey again. “He was depressed since hockey was the only thing he knew, but he did not give up. Three months after the incident, he picked up his hockey stick and started playing with just one hand, while the other was still wrapped in plaster,” Kumar says. “He was keen to return to the field, so we started working on his strengthening.”
There were fears that the injury might have impacted Prasad’s game but he put those apprehensions to rest with a string of impressive performances in domestic competitions. He returned to the junior India team in October last year, when he captained the team at the Sultan of Johor Cup in Malaysia. So impressive was he there, that he was fast-tracked to the senior team immediately after they returned.
In January – at 17 years, 10 months and 22 days – Prasad became the second youngest player to represent the national team (former defender Sandeep Singh, who made his debut at 17 years, 10 months and 11 days in 2004, is the youngest) when he was picked for a four-nation invitational tournament in New Zealand. He stood out at that tournament, scoring goals and creating opportunities for his team-mates against powerhouses like Belgium. Despite playing only a handful of matches, his performance was enough for chief coach Sjoerd Marijne to include him in the team for the Commonwealth Games.
“He convinced us with the New Zealand tour. He can score goals, create penalty corners and chances for others while being good defensively too. He is a young player with a lot of skills and talent,” Marijne says.
The chief coach also had a word of advice. “But he has to keep working hard because talent is not enough to reach the top of the world.” And Kumar concurs: “This is just the beginning. He has the skills and the willingness to work hard. But if he doesn’t stay grounded, it will count for nothing.”