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Supermom coach Pritam Siwach was reluctant, but son Yashdeep sticks to hockey, shores up India’s defense

Blessed with positional acumen and ability to offload the ball quickly, the 21-year-old is lynchpin of India's zonal defense and fallback for high-press turnovers

Written by Mihir Vasavda | Bhubaneswar |
Updated: December 3, 2021 7:53:34 am
Yashdeep Siwach, credit Hockey IndiaYashdeep has impressed for four games in a row. (Hockey India)

Pritam Siwach was convinced her son had lost it.

Around six years ago, on a chilly evening, Yashdeep innocently asked his mother, a hockey legend, if he should follow in her footsteps and pick up a stick. “Have you gone mad?” she replied, dismissively.

Yashdeep, a swimmer of 15 back then, was already making a splash in the pool, having won a silver medal at the sub-junior nationals. “No one changes their sport at that age, especially hockey, which requires a lot of art,” Pritam says. “I told him, ’keep your focus on swimming and continue studying’.”

On Wednesday, the former India captain – who won an Arjuna Award as a player and was recently feted with the Dronacharya Award for producing an assembly line of women players – watched from the stands as her son held together India’s backline, along with Sanjay Kumar and Sharda Nand Tiwari, against a Belgium side that pulverised the defence in the quarterfinals of the Junior World Cup.

In a team of flashy forwards and muscular drag-flickers, Yashdeep, a no-frills defender who operates as a free man mainly within 9 metres inside his own half, has impressed for four games in a row.

India are a team that swears by zonal defending. Every player is assigned an area on the pitch, which he has to guard especially while defending. At the same time, they are a unit that likes to employ a high-press – a style in which forwards are positioned high up the field to put pressure on the opposition players when the ball is in their half.

It’s a high-risk-high-reward strategy. If India can successfully steal the ball, they are just a few yards away from their opponent’s ‘D’. If the other team manages to beat the press, the defence comes under immediate pressure.

That’s where Yashdeep has been most handy for India; trudging between the top of the Indian ‘D’ and the 25-yard line, mopping up the mess created in front of him. Against Belgium, especially in the third quarter when they started to up the tempo, the 21-year-old got in line with the ball and the goal, confronting most attacks that broke through India’s midfield.

Yashdeep hasn’t done anything particularly eye-catching. But the simplicity of his game and the intelligence to anticipate a move and break it is as beautiful as a dribble or a body feint. And when he has possession, he has quickly released the ball instead of holding it longer than needed, a tendency some Indian players tend to show.

That’s a lesson he has learnt from his mother: “Ball toh balaa hai,” Pritam says. “The player who holds the ball for long is the player who will end up making a mistake.”

Yashdeep’s comfort on the ball, clean trapping and quick release hardly betray the fact that he started playing hockey only six years ago. “But hockey is in his DNA,” Pritam says. “Pet se seekh kar aaya hai.”

Supermom Pritam

Pritam, whose international playing career spanned from 1991 to 2008, is one of the earliest Supermoms of Indian sport. “When I was pregnant with Yashdeep, I continued going to the ground for nine months. Initially, I used to train lightly and later, I coached the players who practiced there,” she says.

Yashdeep was just seven months old when Pritam, who decided to make a comeback into the team after the delivery, was summoned for the Manchester Commonwealth Games selection trials. She shed ‘18 kilos in three or four months’ to get selected for the competition, which India famously won.

Pritam went on to become a coach, starting her academy for women in Sonepat that has constantly been producing top-quality players. But she did not wish for her son to follow her into the sport. “He accompanied me to the training ground occasionally but I thought he should try something other than hockey,” she says. “Deep down, I was also concerned that even if he actually did well and got selected on merit, people would talk about selection bias.”

So, the son of one of India’s finest players and coaches turned to swimming. Given the sporting genes in the family – Yashdeep’s father was a hockey player and his sister, too, plays the sport – it was hardly a surprise that he started to make waves. “He was really good at it. One winter, the swimming pools were shut so he picked up a hockey stick and started to play for fun. He was enjoying a lot and asked me, ‘mom, should I play hockey?’”

Pritam was dismissive at first. But the son had picked up one trait of his mother. “Like me, he too is stubborn,” Pritam laughs. “I wasn’t too sure because it is always tough to learn hockey when you are that old. At my academy, too, I enroll kids who are in Class 4 or 5. Yashdeep was in Class 9.”

Eventually, Pritam relented and started to take Yashdeep with her to her academy, where he trained a bit with Tokyo Olympian Neha Goyal, among a few other woman players. “Since childhood, I have been surrounded by hockey. At home, our dinner table conversations would revolve around the game and if I accompanied my parents to their work, it would be at a hockey field,” Yashdeep says. “That atmosphere really helped me to grasp the sport faster.”

So fast, that even Pritam was surprised. Within a year, Yashdeep got selected for Haryana’s junior team for the nationals. And in 2017, he got a call-up for the national camp. At that point, the family had to make a choice. Pritam, who wanted her son to be more career-oriented academically, feared Yashdeep would not be able to balance both if he went to the camp.

Yashdeep begged for a chance. If he wasn’t recalled for the national camp, he promised his mom, he would focus on academics. But that scenario never arose. Since 2017, Yashdeep has been in the junior national team, using his excellent game intelligence to shore up the Indian defence.

“Compared to his level now, Yashdeep was only at 10 per cent when he got selected for the camp. Everything he is able to do today, he has learnt at the camp,” Pritam says. “The reason he is able to grasp the ideas quickly is because of education. It’s very critical in sports today to quickly understand plans and concepts, which can be complex.”

Pritam is in Bhubaneswar to get her coaching badges and as a part of the programme, has been studying most of the matches. It hasn’t been easy to maintain the balance between a mother and a coach while watching Yashdeep play, but she remains objective in her analysis: “His calmness and ball control have been nice. Against Belgium, he made a mistake that could have led to a goal but he didn’t let that mistake affect his performance, which was a good sign. Under pressure, however, he can still do better.”

Germany, an in-your-face, aggressive opponent, are expected to put as much pressure on India’s defence as Belgium, if not more. Once again, with his no-frills defending, Yashdeep will be expected to be one of the faces of the Indian resistance.

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