Updated: November 29, 2021 9:59:10 am
MOST OF Sharda Nand Tiwari’s school summer breaks were spent working at grocery stores in Lucknow. Not wanting to impose the burden of his hobby on his father, a security guard, Tiwari saved every paisa of the Rs 700 or so he earned to buy hockey equipment.
A few hundred kilometres away, in Karampur, Uttam Singh was living his father Krishnakant Singh’s dream. Krishnakant, an aspiring player, was forced to leave hockey and support the family after the untimely demise of his father. So the small-time farmer invested most of his meagre resources in making his son, Uttam, a player.
Not too far in Atagaon, Vishnukant Singh was just six when he followed his sister Preeti, a national-level player, to the village ground. From that day, there’s been no looking back.
With different motivations and fascinating backstories, the trio’s paths first crossed at the Sports Authority of India’s academy in Lucknow. Now, they are among the 18 representing India at the Junior World Cup where they will face Belgium in the quarterfinals at Odisha’s capital Wednesday.
Five players from this team are from UP, signalling a hockey revival in the state that was once the game’s cradle in the country.
“It’s heartening,” says administrator and former player R P Singh. “People had forgotten about UP’s hockey history. For almost two decades, we haven’t had a decent player who has been selected to play for India. This, I hope, will be the beginning of a new chapter.”
R P Singh belongs to a generation when UP produced some of the most stylish players the game has seen, such as Mohammed Shahid, M P Singh and Zafar Iqbal. Through the 1970s and 1980s, Indian teams were virtually made up of players from the most populous state.
For instance, during a tour to Europe in 1982, 11 out of the 16 squad members came from the Meerut sports hostel. At the 1988 Seoul Olympics, six players were from the Lucknow hostel. Overall, between 1976 and 1996, the state had produced about 60 internationals, including a dozen who competed at the Olympics.
So much so that even a cricket stadium in Lucknow is named after a hockey legend, K D Singh Babu.
However, former players say, the heady days also led to an overbearing attitude among some players, fostering indiscipline. This, combined with the failure to evolve coaching techniques at academies, meant talent from the region started to dry up.
And then, there was the age-old problem of “sifarish (recommendation)” in selection for national-level tournaments. “We are now trying to do away with that practice. Only those players who deserve to be in the squad are selected,” says R P Singh, who is the UP government’s sports director.
The recent improvement in performances of teams from UP at national championships — senior and junior, men and women — has led to their players getting identified by national team scouts, paving the way to training camps.
Districts like Ghazipur, where barren lands have been converted into training fields, have become the new catchment areas, replacing traditional hotbeds like Lucknow and Allahabad.
Three players in the Junior World Cup team — Uttam, Vishnukant and Rahul Rajbhar — have honed their art at Karampur in Ghazipur, in an academy set up by the late Tej Bahadur Singh, a hockey aficionado who turned a nondescript village into the sport’s nursery. Tokyo Olympics bronze medallist Lalit Upadhyay, the first from the state to get selected for the Games since Pawan Kumar at Atlanta 1996, spent some early years at this academy.
Upadhyay now guides players from this region. “He speaks to us before and after matches, telling us what we have done right and areas we can improve,” Uttam, who has scored four goals in three matches in this World Cup, says. “Lalit has had a journey very similar to ours, so he understands us well.”
Uttam adds: “My father could not continue playing because of family pressure. He was the sole breadwinner and hence couldn’t focus on the game. It wasn’t easy for him to take care of my expenses as well. But Tej Bahadur Singh, who passed away this year, and his brother Radhe Mohan Singh took care of my needs even after I moved to SAI Lucknow.”
Goalkeeper Prashant Chauhan, who hails from Varanasi, completes the UP quintet.
In the group matches at the World Cup, their first international games in two years, these players displayed the qualities that have always been associated with players from UP. Chauhan displayed dexterity between the posts, Uttam showed an unerring eye for goal, and Vishnu Kant showcased remarkably fast wrists and exceptional stick skills.
All of them have played a key role in the tournament, where India, the defending champions, recovered after a shock defeat to France to qualify for the quarterfinals, thanks to wins over Canada and Poland.
R P Singh acknowledges that there’s no guarantee that success at a junior level will transition to the senior arena. But he is hopeful that this tournament will open the doors for other younger players.
“Representation in the national team is crucial to inspire the next generation. For years, we did not have that. But now, when the younger batches watch these players, it’s bound to motivate them,” he says. “I hope we will return to the days when half of the senior national team is once again made up of players from UP.”
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