It was a rare dull phase of the game where little happened. India were up by a goal, and with less than five minutes remaining, they were playing for the whistle. For all the possession they had, Britain too were not incisive. Until Amir Khan decided to inject some life into the game.
The forward collected a pass from Manpreet Singh on the right flank near the half line. A British defender thought he had a chance of stealing the ball. Khan drew him forward, and the moment he committed himself, the Indian shifted gears.
Using his long strides to his advantage, Khan glided past three British players, running solo for 25 yards in a curve, took the ball on his left side and unleashed a powerful reverse hit from edge of the ‘D’. It took an acrobatic stretch by goalkeeper James Bailey to keep that fierce shot out. Had he scored, it would have been Khan’s first goal in a major international tournament. But there was no show of emotions over the narrow miss. Just a shake of the head and he was back to his position, ensuring the team did not lose its shape.
The Brits, on the other hand, looked dazzled with the sudden burst of energy and the skill to create a chance out of nothing. But for those who’ve monitored his progress, it was hardly a surprise. In fact, for them the attempt was an assertion of young Khan’s abilities, which made him one of India’s most promising strikers a few years back.
“It’s one of his trademark moves. The first time I saw him perform it, I guess at the Lucknow SAI Centre in 2008, I was mesmerized. It looked so effortless,” remembers AK Bansal, who was Khan’s coach when he made his junior team debut seven years back. “In the current crop, he is easily the most stylish and skillful player on his day.”
It may sound slightly exaggerated but Bansal puts extra emphasis on his last three words — on his day. And perhaps it’s something Khan would have grown sick of hearing. The 21-year-old returned to the national team for the World League finals after such a long hiatus that most seemed to have forgotten that he made his debut six years ago. “He had everything that a player should possess — speed, skill, strength. Maybe it was because he learnt the game the hard way, on a grass turf with few things at his disposal,” Bansal says.
Son of a scrap dealer, Khan began playing hockey on a wobbly Islamia Majidia Inter-College ground in Atala neighbourhood of Allahabad. Some say it once used to be a hub of anti-social activities, a regular crime scene which made the area unsafe. But it was the only available open space in the locality. “We lived a modest life. We weren’t very well off financially but it did not hamper my career. My father never deprived me of anything,” Khan says.
Khan played hockey only because his cousins played, not once thinking he will make a career out of it. “It was just for one. But when I decided to play hockey, my father stood like a rock beside me. Whatever I needed was made available,” he says.
His talent on the grass ground in Atala was spotted during a local tournament and he was shifted to the SAI centre in Lucknow, from where Bansal selected him for the junior side. Khan was a part of the 2009 junior World Cup squad and made his senior team debut the same year during a test series in Canada. He was just 16 and was already making heads turn with his performances.
Then came the fall. After that one tournament in Canada, Khan fell out of favour to never return to the squad again. It’s tough to say why. Confidence, or the lack of it, maybe? “That’s the only explanation. I can’t think of anything else. He is a shy kid, doesn’t speak much and tends to get intimidated,” Bansal says.
Bansal once again took Khan under his wings during the Hockey India League last season, when he was the coach of Kalinga Lancers. The duo was reunited after five years and Bansal was relieved to see that despite being on the fringes, Khan had not lost the hunger. If anything, he had added a couple of yards to his pace and honed his skills further.
Quest for consistency
It’s a mystery why Khan remained out of favour for such a long time. On Thursday, though, he showed what India had been missing out on. India’s win against Britain in the quarterfinal was more about brilliant team work than exceptional individual performances. But Khan’s probing runs troubled the British defence, like he briefly did against Holland as well as Germany.
Khan’s stick-to-ball control is believed to be the smoothest among the current lot, a skill that is useful to create penalty corners. He also has a powerful reverse hit that roll through the carpet, making it tough for the defenders to control. “I had a good match on Thursday. But I know I need to be consistent,” Khan admits.
You can sense the desperation in his voice. After all, the last thing he would want again after this match is to drift into oblivion once again, like he did six years ago.
TODAY’S Schedule 6.30pm: India vs Belgium (semifinal); 8.30pm: Germany vs Canada (7th/8th place playoff)
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