There’s an air of peace, more than usual, with which VR Raghunath strolls around the lobby of a posh Mumbai hotel. The smile barely leaves him, as he goes out of the way to greet passers-by – known or unknown to him, one cannot tell.
Meanwhile, at the same time in Bangalore, a group of 33, sans Raghunath, meets for a camp to prepare for next month’s Sultan Azlan Shah Cup. The 28-year-old is not part of that group as he has taken a ‘temporary break’ from national team duties.
He’s living it up. “I felt that I needed to go a bit slow, so I can chill out a little bit. That’s my main intention,” he says, flashing another smile.
A rumour grew before the Hockey India League earlier this year that the veteran defender was to announce his international retirement after the marquee event. He didn’t. The idea resurfaced, stronger this time, when he was the first big name in the team to have not been named for the 33-strong camp.
He simply shrugs, saying he himself had asked coach Roelant Oltmans for the break. “I had a serious discussion with the coach before the HIL. I’ve constantly been in the national team for the past seven-odd years. But I have a family and everyone is at home, so I felt I should invest a little time in them. I thought I’d opt for a break of six months,” he says.
Raghunath first came into the national team in 2006 for a Test Series against Pakistan. A good 228 international caps and 132 goals later, 10 years after his debut, he played his last international against Australia in another Test Series in November 2016 – as captain.
In the interim, he has also played for India at two Olympic Games and one World Cup, the 2014 edition in Holland.
He hasn’t quite retired yet though, because he’s still open to the idea of coming back into the national team. Maybe. “After playing for 10 years, if you don’t act from your mind and heart, it’s a waste. When you’re not at 100 percent, and you’re pushing, it’s really not a good thing. I felt that instead of waiting for the last moment, I should take a break now and see how it goes,” he adds.
The timing is right as well, as he leaves no void in the national team. As many as 11 players from the U-21 team that won the Junior World Cup in December have got the call-up for the camp.
Harmanpreet Singh is the most notable name, as he was also in the Rio Olympics squad, and is a highly-rated drag-flicker – just like Raghunath.
The Kodagu native praises Oltmans’ move to include juniors. “It’s a new Olympic cycle, so it’s good to give the boys at least 30-40 matches this year. It’ll help them understand the pressures and expectations of the senior team, before the major tournaments next year.”
At the same time, he’s not worried about losing his spot to a younger player. For now, he’s yet to figure out if he even wants to make a return.
The state of the sport, and the remuneration that comes with it, has improved significantly. And that helps players make the decision to call it quits instead of dragging on. “The average playing time of a hockey player is about 10 years. The finances are good now so you don’t have to prolong your career, you can leave on the right note,” he says. “If I don’t come back, I will not regret it. If the team doesn’t need my services anymore, I’ll still be happy. I’ve played for my country for 10 years, and I’ll be happy to announce my retirement.”
If November 2016 was indeed the last stretch of Raghunath’s India career, he’s leaving behind an impressive legacy. At the 2013 Asia Cup, Raghunath was named player of the tournament in a campaign where India finished runners-up.
He was an integral part of a generation of players that made a team that brought back hope — especially after the Olympic debacles of 2008 and 2012.
The team got to the quarter-finals of the Rio Games, after winning gold at the 2014 Asian Games, for the first time since 1998. If Raghunath is leaving, he’s helped set things up for the next generation. “We’ve secured a platform for the juniors. Let them carry it on.”