There is something frustratingly charming about watching SV Sunil do what he does the best. He conveys an impression of a man seldom in control—lost, eyes darting around like the steel balls in a pinball machine, always searching for something. He’s non-confrontational, seldom gets into the fight for the scraps. Self-conscious and shy, perhaps about his slight build in a sport where more and more players have hulk-like frames.
It’s easy to forget he’s on the pitch. Maybe, that’s what he wants. For, it’s at that moment of obscurity that Sunil is most dangerous. Far he may be from the melee but he is never too far, always lurking around like the eighthman in a rugby scrum. He’ll wait for a loose ball. One touch, sometimes two, and he stabs forward.
Today, hockey increasingly relies on size, muscle and structure. It’s easier to find open spaces in suburban Mumbai than on a hockey field. But that is the mesmeric skill of Sunil: he glides through the tight spaces in top gear, shepherds the ball with evasive touches, changes direction, makes assists and, on a handful occasions, scores himself–all in a blurred motion.
Watching his giant strides, you wonder if he is the fastest sprinter to have never run for India. At the last national camp, he clocked 4.91 seconds for a 40-yard dash, which is 0.79 seconds slower than the unofficial best time (4.12 seconds) in the same distance set by USA sprinter Christian Coleman in May. “Woh toh Indian Bolt hai,” India forward Lalit Upadhyay says. “When we practice a few give-and-go routines, we have to work a bit hard just to keep up the pace with him.”
His technique may not be ideal. Unlike the yesteryear greats, like Mohammad Shahid, who ran with the ball glued to their stick, making it impossible for the defenders to steal, Sunil runs with the ball and stick a yard apart. It gives the defenders a chance to steal the ball without creating an obstruction. However, it’s easier said for they also risk being condemned to the sin-bin for a mistimed tackle.
On some occasions, he’s accused of overdoing it. You never know what a Sunil run will eventually yield but Sunil knows just one way to play. He never appears to be in control. Yet, in his own uncanny way, he always has been – in every match he has played since making his debut exactly a decade ago. It earned him Asia’s best player of 2016 crown and the best player of the Asia Cup in October this year.
Ten years is a lifetime in Indian hockey. During this period, he has seen the administrators change, played under six foreign and two Indian coaches and witnessed a culture shift in the dressing room that makes the Indian team look more European than Asian.
From the squad that won the bronze in the World League Final in Bhubaneswar a week ago, he is the last thread that connects Indian hockey’s turbulent past to its promising present. Sunil has weathered it all, playing through triumphs and tragedies; his journey at times mirroring his team’s.
“It is incredible when you fulfill your dream, you know. Ten years ago, I was sitting in the same room with Rajpal Singh, Prabhjot Singh, Dilip Tirkey… sab bada bada naam.” he says, recalling his debut at the 2007 Asia Cup. “I was very nervous. Before the match, I just sat in the dressing room, closed my eyes and thought about the journey that got me so far.”
It was a daily ritual: leave home alone at 4 am, cycle for a kilometer to the cowshed, purchase milk, and then head back. “Any later, and you wouldn’t get milk,” recalls SV Suresh. Soon Sunil, a mere five-year-old at the time, decided to accompany his elder brother.
Given the 20-year age-gap between them, it wasn’t uncommon for them to be mistaken for a father-son duo. That Sunil would follow Suresh everywhere further added weight. But there was more to it than Sunil just feeling lost at home without his guardian. The bond was thick. Since their mother’s death when Sunil was only four, Suresh had taken it upon himself to care for Sunil. And steadily, ‘Anna’ did indeed become Sunil’s second father.
Suresh’s efforts to provide for the family had actually begun long before Sunil was born. When he was 16, living with his parents in their one-hall-kitchen rented residence at Sowmarpet village, in the Kodagu district of Karnataka, he was forced to drop out of school and shift to Mangalore to learn the jewelry trade.
He was made to forsake his own dream of playing hockey, despite spending years practising at the small ground near their home. “I was quite a decent goalkeeper. Not many could get past me,” he says, laughing. Yet, in his own lost dreams, he saw a vision for Sunil to excel in the sport. He promised himself: “Whatever happens, Sunil will play.”
Sunil did. In the beginning, it was just for fun. He set off on the same ground where his brother was once an unbeatable object. “I found some old discarded wooden sticks from my father’s shop. One had a curve like a hockey stick, so I used that,” Sunil recalls. Getting a ball wasn’t a problem as he used to play with members of the Blue Star Hockey Club.
The team was a blend of adults and teenagers, but there was always space for the diminutive Sunil. So much so that on occasions where he did not show up, the seniors would give him a strong verbal hiding when he next attended practice. “I used to get scared when they shouted. So then I’d play harder and more regularly. Darr ke vaje se discipline aa gaya,” he quips.
One fine day in the summer of 1998, a group of Army selectors visited his village to scout for talent. Sunil remembers noticing the jeeps parked at the entrance, and a tall uniformed man taking names on a clipboard. “I thought he was taking names of the people who played there. So I added my name because I thought they will stop me from playing if I didn’t. I didn’t know it was a sign-up sheet for the trials,” he says.
Oblivious to the eyes that were watching him, Sunil played his usual game: running faster than any other on the ground, barefoot, with a make-shift hockey stick that had been nailed, glued and taped several times over in an attempt to prolong its rupture. The next thing he remembers is of the same tall soldier informing him that he’d been selected by an under-15 scouting program for the Maratha Light Infantry in Belgaum.
The news didn’t fit too kindly with his father initially. But Suresh stepped in. “We had a lot of financial problems. But if Sunil went, he would get proper meals, clothes, shoes, and he’ll learn more about the game,” Suresh recollects. And so as a parting gift, Suresh gave Sunil his first ever ‘proper’ hockey stick. “I do not know how he managed. I think it was a second-hand one, but it was the real thing. Bahut sambhaal ke rakha maine,” Sunil says. Just like that, Sunil found himself in the big league.
The child-like enthusiasm, though, never faded. In the 2007 Asia Cup, Sunil played with the same freedom like he did in his village tournaments, surprising his teammates and scaring the opponents with his sudden burst of pace. He scored opportunistic goals as India won the title in front of home crowd in Chennai. Soon, Sunil became a regular in the team. And while his career was on an upswing and he jet-setted around the world, his family still lived in the same humble conditions. In 2009, he faced his biggest moment of tragedy. On the morning of a match at the Azlan Shah Cup in Malaysia, then coach Harendra Singh informed Sunil of his father’s death. “He gave me the option of returning,” Sunil says. “But all the rituals were over. So I did not see any point in going back. Instead, I wanted to stay back and help the team.”
Those were the dark days for Indian hockey as well. Serious questions were asked on every player as crisis became the new normal in Indian hockey, following the team’s failure to qualify for the Beijing Olympics. It got tough for a player to trust even his teammate amidst the insecurity and infighting.
In middle of all this, the new coach, an unknown Spaniard Jose Brasa, had already ruffled some feathers. He wanted the players to learn basics—trapping and passing. Egos were bruised. Upset with his approach, five of them stormed out of the camp. But Brasa’s methods began to show results. “Initially, we felt weird to learn basics. But slowly, we saw its impact on the field. For example, I never looked up while running with the ball. He ensured I did that,” Sunil says.
The minor tweak turned Sunil from being just a hustler into a genuine threat. Just then, however, the wheels came off. Sunil had been playing through a knee injury for a year and by now, it had gotten worse. An immediate surgery was required. “My right knee bone was dead; blood wasn’t reaching that part. The doctor said I wouldn’t be able to play at all if they did not operate it. He said the surgery would cost around Rs 5 lakh and I started sweating profusely. For me, it was impossible to arrange such a big amount,” Sunil said.
Hockey India stepped in, and with the help of local government officials, Sunil’s bills were paid. But his worries did not end there. The rehab was a long process, and fortuitously for him, it coincided with perhaps the busiest, if not the biggest year, in Indian sport. The country was hosting the World Cup and Commonwealth Games, while an Olympic berth was at stake for the hockey team at the Guangzhou Asian Games. Sunil had been preparing for these events for a year. Now, just like that, he was out of reckoning.
“It was a tough time. Back then, once you were out of the team, you weren’t sure of returning, Langde ghode ko koi nahi poochta,” Sunil says. “I had no direction. Hockey was all I knew. Now, I wasn’t sure if I would ever play again.”
As he recovered from his injury and battled the insecurity, the Indian team’s fortunes too continued to tumble. The year 2010 began with a below-par show at the World Cup and a disastrous bronze-medal finish at the Asian Games. The Commonwealth Games silver was the only high point but that wasn’t enough to save Brasa’s job.
By the time Sunil returned to the squad, the Spaniard was gone and Hockey India had roped in Australian Michael Nobbs as his replacement along with David John as the physio. “Nobbs was a very good man-manager. He and David changed the culture of the Indian team. In the sense that the focus on fitness was like we’ve never seen before,” Sunil says.
Sunil, meanwhile, became even faster. Clarence Lobo, who was the team’s assistant coach back then, says it was at that stage that Sunil truly secured his place. “When you injure your knee to that degree, you lose a lot of pace. But he worked hard. And somehow he was faster than ever before,” Lobo says.
Nobbs ensured there was no repeat of 2008 as India qualified for the London Olympics. But the tiny ray of resurgence soon extinguished. “London was very depressing. Personally, I had a very poor tournament and as a team, too, we did very poorly,” Sunil says. “The first match was the turning point. We were level 2-2 with Holland and they scored a late winner. Woh match le dooba. If we had clung on to that draw, against a big team like Holland, things would’ve been very different.”
The wooden-spoon in London forced Hockey India to make wholesale changes. Sunil was one of the few survivors. A few months later, Nobbs too was replaced by another Australian, Terry Walsh. Then happened the Hockey India League, which changed players’ attitude and lifestyles. “I like buying watches and shoes, and Raghu (VR Raghunath) keeps asking, ‘how many hands and feet do I have,’” says Sunil, who also built a house for his family in Mangalore.
The new generation of players oozed confidence by playing alongside the world’s best. Suddenly, seniority wasn’t the only prerequisite to be in the Indian team. “Ten years ago, there was a set hierarchy and you couldn’t breach that even on the ground. Today, no one is a senior or junior. We play to a system, it doesn’t matter who you are. If you have such a relationship, then results will show.”
Results did show. Under Walsh, Sunil peaked and India recorded its biggest wins in recent history, including the test series in Australia and the Asian Games gold. But soon, Walsh too was shown the door after falling out with the federation. By now, he’d become used to this inconstancy. “As a player, it’s tough in the beginning. Every coach has his own style and we have to adapt accordingly. The quicker you do that, the better it is. If you are adamant and use the methods of the previous coach, then it will be tough to find a spot in the team,” he says.
Two more coaches, Dutchmen Paul van Ass and Roelant Oltmans, have come and gone since then. The team, too, gives an impression of having stagnated after showing signs of resurgence. The current coach, Sjoerd Marijne, has not hesitated in ‘resting’ senior players, which a decade ago was unthinkable. Sunil sees the logic behind it. “The federation and coaches are right in demanding accountability. As players, we have to maintain certain standards. If you don’t have results, then you will be out of the team,” he says.
He hopes he won’t be on the chopping block. He’s missed one World Cup at home owing to an injury. “I don’t want to miss another,” he says, referring to the 2018 World Cup in Bhubaneswar. “We have a good team and a good coach. I need to stay fit and injury free. One year is a long time in sport.”
For a man who’s survived and thrived in Indian hockey for a decade, a year should be a mere blink of an eye.
SV Sunil is one of the few players who has played under all foreign coaches in the last decade. Here, he explains what each coach brought to the table.
I played a few tournaments under Brasa but missed the major ones – World Cup, Commonwealth and Asian Games – in 2010 because of an injury. His main focus was on improving our basic skills —we did only that first for 6-7 months. Initially, it felt a bit strange because that is something you do when you start playing hockey. But when your game improves, you realise why it was important.
Nobbs was a very good man-manager. He was a free-minded coach and did not tinker much technically. Under him, the focus was a lot on fitness. (Current high performance director) David John was the trainer and they made a big impact. It was great for me because he gave me the freedom to play freely. I was returning from injury so it helped me settle into the team.
Walsh introduced really interesting concepts in training — little things like bending low while hitting the ball, or improve the speed of our passes and using sweep hits effectively. Under him, most of us hit our peak. We won a test series in Australia, which was huge and then the Asian Games gold medal.
Paul van Ass
Paul was there for a brief period so there wasn’t enough time for him to bring a real change. But he was a great motivator, there was a lot of positivity around him. He tried to make us play one-touch and pressing game. But he wasn’t there for long.
His main focus was to strengthen our defence. Roelant used to say attacks will only win you a match but a good defence will help you win a tournament. He made us a strong team structurally, urging the forwards to fall back and defend. My natural instinct is to attack but insisted I fall back. That’s why if you see, the forwards now can play well in defence too. We also started using player rotations smartly during his time.
We have started playing one-touch and two-touch hockey, which makes it really tough for defences. We are trying to release the ball within 2-3 seconds after receiving it. Another aspect is creating space in the striking circle for the teammates unlike before, where the players used to go for a shot himself. His philosophy is the player who creates the chance is more important than the one who scores.