It wasn’t love at first sight. Not even at second or third glimpse. In fact, the world’s longest-serving hockey player’s affair with the sport began with a strong dislike. “It was too dangerous for something that’s essentially a leisure activity,” he says. He started playing hockey more by chance than choice and since then, it’s been a constant source of pain.
His has been a career littered with more lows than highs; the nice guy who always finishes last — be it the repeated failure to qualify for the Olympics, inability to win any tournament, a failed dope test or the twin deaths that pushed him into a spiritual odyssey.
Kumar Subramaniam isn’t just another star in the hockey galaxy. For 20 years, he has been a rock in Malaysia’s goal, guiding them to highs that few before him managed. For many, he is to modern hockey what Gigi Buffon is to football — in terms of the length of his career, importance to the national team and simply remaining relevant when everything around him has changed.
The 38-year-old, employed with an electric meter-reading company, has spent more than half of his life playing the sport he hates. He is the second oldest player at the World Cup, younger to 39-year-old Argentine Juan Vivaldi by five months. He is also the most experienced player in the Malaysian squad, having amassed 306 international appearances since making his debut in 1998, and arguably among Asia’s best players.
Yet, there is a sense of unfulfillment as he enters the third decade of his international career. But his story doesn’t start on the hockey turf. In fact, it begins close to a hundred years ago, when a family, out of desperation, decided to flee a tiny village in Tamil Nadu. And in a classic twist of fate, Subramaniam’s pursuit of solitude has brought him to the land of his ancestors.
The year is 1924. Brahmadesam, near Erode in Tamil Nadu, was a tranquil place with a river on one side and temples peppered across the tiny village. But the peace was broken at the peak of the British Raj, when the locals were enslaved and atrocities piled up.
“So my great grandfather left the place along with a few relatives when he was six years old. It was a question of survival. They wanted to escape so he first went to Singapore and settled down there. Later on, he moved to Malaysia,” Subramaniam says.
Subramaniam, son of a hospital attendant, is the first to take up sport as a career. It wasn’t hockey, though. “My father, uncle. everybody was crazy about football. So I got hooked on to the sport very early in life.” Like the majority from that generation, the 1986 football World Cup became the defining point – Maradona’s cunning and creativity drawing him to the sport immediately.
It wasn’t until 1992 that he got to know about hockey. Subramaniam, by now in secondary school, chanced upon a national inter-school final but the sport didn’t attract him. “It was on grass. The match was good to watch and all but I didn’t feel like playing because it was too dangerous,” he says.
From whatever little he saw, Subramaniam realised that the goalkeeper was a ‘very important position.’ He was the one player who could influence the result of the match. It was only a few months later that he would eventually play the sport. His school’s under-15 team was looking for a substitute goalkeeper and Subramaniam was summoned for a trial.
The parameters for selection weren’t demanding: Subramaniam was asked to kick the ball out of danger. He cleared it so well that the coach immediately offered him a spot in the team. But he refused. “It was very dangerous and at that time, goalkeepers weren’t well protected. No helmets, wooden pads, gloves only for one hand. I asked my teacher, ‘how could one become a goalkeeper without proper protection?’ My teacher then told me, ‘okay, we will get you a helmet and other equipment’ to train,” he remembers.
In just five years since that day, the great-grandson of Indian immigrants became Malaysia’s best. He made his international debut at the 1999 South-East Asian Games in Brunei. “I never really had an ambition to become No. 1 or play for 20 years and so on. Only after playing and talking with some of the senior players and looking at the stars in the other teams did I get that ambition. You know what: ‘I want to play the World Cup, the Olympics.’”
In a team that can best be described as a perennial under-achiever, Subramaniam is an over-achiever. His stocky presence make him a difficult player to score against. He went on to be named Asia’s best goalkeeper but in a tragic twist, the goalkeeper — known for his anticipation — was caught off guard by life’s unpredictability.
The one thing Subramaniam dislikes more than the sport he plays is midnight phone calls. “You can say I have a phobia of it,” he says. And there’s a reason for it. The two occasions he received calls in middle of the night, it left him shattered.
The first time was during the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi when, a night before their match against Pakistan, he received a call from his wife.
“The first call was at around 2am, when she told me my father was serious and admitted in hospital after suffering a heart attack. A few hours later, she called again to tell me he is no more. It was sudden. He talked to me for around 45 minutes on the phone earlier that day. I was shocked because he generally didn’t talk a lot with me when I’m away because he didn’t want to disturb me. That and extra phone bill,” he smiles fondly.
Being the only son, Subramaniam immediately left for Malaysia to perform the last rites. Twenty days later, however, he was back on the field – this time at the Asian Games in Guangzhou. Subramaniam returned stronger, perhaps motivated by the last conversation he had with his father. “He always told me, ‘I pity you because you always have a tough time against teams like India and Pakistan.’”
That tournament, Subramaniam — and Malaysia — made life hell for both these nations. Subramaniam was the showstopper as they stunned India in the semifinal and stretched Pakistan all the way in the final before settling for a silver medal. A few days later, he was blessed with a baby boy.
He seemed to have returned stronger from the loss but the incident that shook him the most took place five years later. Barely a couple of days had passed since Subramaniam and the rest of the Malaysian team had landed in Antwerp for the 2015 World League Semifinals when he received another call in the middle of the night.
The timeline was eerily similar. His wife called to inform him that his second son, Harshenn, had contracted mild fever and was being taken to hospital for check-up. “The doctor assured her that it was just a normal fever,” he says. Then, around midnight in Antwerp, he received another call. This time, his wife was howling. “The only thing she kept repeating was, ‘our son is not moving, our son isn’t moving.’”
Subramaniam took the first flight back home, and in his mind, he had decided to retire from international hockey. “My father was 55 and my son was just two-and-a-half years old. Both deaths were not expected and I was away while it happened,” he says. “It was a very tough situation for me to cope with. After the loss of the son, my wife was crying for a few months. And the boy who passed away came into my dream and said ‘don’t cry’. ‘Appa, don’t cry, I will be back soon.’”
Subramaniam has his son’s name tattooed on his right forearm. The deaths affected him so much that he was drawn to spirituality. “For 48 days, I turned vegetarian, didn’t shave and everything. I turned to a lot of gurus and swamis to overcome the pain,” he says.
His family and friends urged him to reconsider his decision to retire. That, they believed, was the only way for Subramaniam to move on. He saw the logic in what they said and, in early 2016, made a return to international hockey.
A comeback that nearly tarnished his reputation.
“I am a god-fearing guy. I wouldn’t resort to cheating, no way.”
Subramaniam is talking about a phase in his life where he didn’t know where to go and who to turn to. Following his return, Malaysia had once again started to look like a side that meant business. Former India coach Terry Walsh had joined them as high performance director and the emergence of exciting young strikers, the Saari brothers for instance, had given them an edge that the team lacked earlier.
The birth of another baby boy in 2016 somewhat reduced the pain, and Subramaniam — in the twilight of his career — started to look menacing as ever. Just then, he received a communication from the World Anti-Doping Agency that he had flunked a dope test carried out at the Asia Cup last October.
Subramaniam was provisionally suspended and instead of asking for his ‘B’ sample to be tested, he requested an early hearing. Jagdish Chandra, an Indian origin lawyer, represented him at the hearing. Chandra had also fought for Malaysian badminton legend Lee Chong Wei when he had failed a dope test during the 2015 World Championship and managed to get him an eight-month suspended sentence instead of a two-year ban by proving the doping wasn’t intentional.
Now, Chandra had to clear the name of another Malaysian legend. “It was one of the biggest tests of my life. This could have spoiled my name for good because there is always a stigma associated with it,” Subramaniam says.
After a hard-fought case, Chandra was able to prove his client’s innocence and Subramaniam was handed a six-month sentence, which cleared him for the World Cup. “If I didn’t have belief in God, I would have been gone (mentally). I would have believed that my story had ended.”
But Subramaniam’s story carries on. In the land of his ancestors.