Like most other Indian kids born around the late 1990’s and 2000, my love affair with hockey begins at the meeting point of Chak De India!, a coach, and my friends. In late-2006 and early-2007, I was cricket-mad. I’d been following cricket religiously for close to 5 years by that point, and playing it seriously, with leather-ball coaching for half a year. The net sessions were grueling but extremely enjoyable. I’d play with friends at school and loved it, and I’d play at a friend’s house, in his room, for hours on-end. More about that is here. However, I was never one to shy away from new sports. My parents encouraged it, my school encouraged it even more. So it was that turf was laid out in school [with rubber], a hockey coach was brought in, alongwith 25-30 fluorescent yellow sticks, and we began to be trained in this crazy sport.
It was insane.
We had Games periods, and all of our Games periods, as a collective Grade 4 class, ended up going in training with Stallone sir. I found his name pretty amusing at the time, because he reminded me of Sylvester Stallone and I was just off a Rocky phase, but there he was, teaching us the absolute fundamentals. How to pass a ball along the ground, how to trap a ball, and how to push the ball into the net. As one of the only left-handed people in class trying to play the sport, he had a unique challenge with me, and I remember him vividly trying to explain me to how to turn my body around so I ended up behind the ball on the correct [right-handed] side to trap it more accurately. I never ended up successfully doing it, and my passing was pretty woeful because I had no power at all in my right-hand, but he persevered with me. In our Games periods, he’d split us up into mixed teams and make us all play these mini matches, which we thoroughly enjoyed.
We slowly began to develop individually and collectively. We learned the rules and regulations: not to use the back of the stick, to ensure the ball didn’t hit our feet, and to try our hardest not to commit fouls by aggresively tackling and making people fall by hitting them with the stick. The sticks at school were pretty small, so they were very fun to play with, and he taught us to take more powerful shots, swinging hard at the ball. While everyone learned that skill right-handed, the first thing he taught me was the reverse-hit, because that came to me more naturally. So it was that the left-hander in me felt consoled and tended to, and learned there was a sport that was right-hand dominant that reserved a special kind of shot for us, and a nice little cross-pass technique too. Stallone sir was really good at coaching and motivating kids – and I think we were all so enthused by this new sport that we took to his coaching gleefully.
I ended up dividing my time between hockey and cricket. Cricket was still the more serious sport at home and at school, with school team trainings, weekend net sessions and practices, and games with friends, but hockey ended up becoming the sport that brought out more joy. My friends and I started to play within enclosed air-conditioned spaces in the ground floor of our apartment complex. They were all physically more fit than I was, and I remember being so impressed at how they ran with the ball, and the ball just seemed to go with them as they sprinted everywhere. On the other hand I’d really struggle with it: I’d either take a first touch too hard and lose control of the ball altogether because I couldn’t keep up, or I’d end up in a slow jog and someone would tackle me.
Hockey was super fun at school because Stallone sir mixed the boys and the girls together. It was one of those sports we all learned together, so at the start, I don’t think he saw any reason to split us off. As a result, playing together provided the kind of interaction for us we had never had before. The girls used to play basketball (I hardly remember any guys playing basketball), and the boys used to play football and cricket. Everyone did athletics and swimming when required, but hockey was the first sport that brought us all together in Games period, and not just summer camp. It broke down a lot of the cootie barriers we had.
Then Chak De India! was released. Damn, what a movie. There are parts of it I now find strange, and disagree with, but it was remarkable to me that there was this hockey, and this sports accomplishment in my home country I had no clue about. The tactics they showed in the movie, the physicality of the sport, it all appealed to me and I knew I was in love with it immediately. I spent a week convincing my mother I needed a stick to play with – using the convenient excuse that I was left-handed and so would benefit from a different type of stick (all a bahana – I’m sure she saw straight through it), but we went to Lulu and we bought a 60 Dhs. Karson hockey stick, which I carried with me to school everyday to play with.
Then came the tournament. We were invited to Cambridge International School in Abu Dhabi for a 7-a-side mixed indoor tournament, and we were so excited, I think Stallone sir basically took half our class to the tournament. I look at the photos we have, I’m so glad for facebook, and I can see all of my close school friends from that time in the photographs. We all bought shin-pads to play with, and everyone had their own sticks by this time. It was an absolute blast. I don’t think we did well at all – in fact, I can remember only one goal from the entire tournament (that my friend scored), but we enjoyed ourselves so much! By this time, hockey-wise, Stallone sir really was encouraging us to have fun. Outside of game-time, when I remember him being quite strict, he was teaching us how to scoop, how to juggle the ball (which one of the Keegans picked up very well).
My uncle, who really enjoyed pampering me – asked me what I wanted for his last birthday we’d spend together in Dubai. I wanted a Slazenger hockey stick. So we drove down to GoSport, in Dubai Festival City, on a weekday evening, and went through everything on offer in the shop, and picked up a fibreglass Slazenger hockey stick. I used that for the rest of the year, making sure I didn’t play with it indoor, only when I was on a field – out of worry that it’d be scratched.
And then I relocated to India. When I first visited Indus International School, where I was set to enroll, I saw how many sports facilities they had, and I was very intrigued by the fact that they didn’t have junior hockey. As an international school with boarding facilities and such a vast expanse of land, it felt easy to demarcate one area for junior hockey-playing. Seniors apparently played, but not very seriously. When I asked the admissions officer about this, she seriously remarked to me that I could make a reasonable request that junior hockey be offered at school. You see, there’s no real difference between junior hockey and senior hockey except field dimensions and maybe more rigorous coaching because we’re trying to learn the sport. At that time of course, I had no idea, and I was grateful that somebody might listen to what I had to say.
So it was that in July 2008 (I still have the e-mail), a month after I relocated, I wrote up a statement of purpose and sent it into the admissions office. This was my introductory paragraph:
Hockey is a very popular sport and is the national sport of India. I like hockey a lot and am looking to achieve a lot in it. I want to represent Indus International School in Inter-School tournaments and after I become big want to play international hockey for India. It challenges all players mentally as well as physically.
e.g.- If you are in the opponent’s ‘D’ and your player is covered by your opponent, you need to think to either pass to him or shoot the ball from whatever distance you’re in from the goal. That’s how it challenges the players mentally.
I look back now amused, but at that time, I was very impressed. So impressed, that I used Comic Sans MS:
My parents were quite impressed with how serious I was about this, and most of the school was too. I remember meeting the CEO of the School as well as my Principal, which at my young age felt rather cool. My friends back in Dubai gave me a fair amount of encouragement – especially my best friend, who kept updating me with how Stallone sir had really taken hockey at school to new heights, with proper teams practicing and playing regularly. I can’t quite tell how much of a role my SOP had with things, but I got approval and stayed back every Tuesday to play hockey at school.
In my complex, my tennis coach, who was custodian of the colony (as President of the Welfare Association), and someone I called Uncle because he was my mother’s friend – doubled up as a hockey companion. I dribbled around against him in front of his house a couple of times, with both of us deciding not to play there any more because of the un-evenness of the surface. We moved to the children’s park once, but then I think my enthusiasm faded slightly, especially with opportunities coming up to play in school.
It was just me in Grade 6, but Bhowmik sir at school really made time for me every single Tuesday. He spent time with me largely on my fitness and stamina, and in the cricket nets, set up dribbling exercises for me. We worked on my scoop shot even more. As exams rolled around, I stopped staying back on Tuesdays, but Bhowmik sir reeled me back in. I ended up playing a few cricket games for school in the U-10 category (because I had a year on me at the time), but hockey was really what kept me going in Grade 6 as I adjusted to this new school.
Grade 7 rolled around, and a couple of new people joined school. One from South Africa, and one from Germany. A few other people from our class joined in with us – because they had played hockey before as well. A senior hockey coach joined as well, and suddenly from one, we became quite a few of us who cared about the sport. The footballers joined in with us too – and we began to play during sports sessions where we were free to pick a sport (I played badminton in the other period). It was then that it became apparent to me how much physical fitness I still lacked, so I focused on doing some basic things as best as I could, but I was not really much of a match for the footballers – who could generate a ton of power in their legs to support some very hard hits. We once played a game of regular hockey players against the footballers and lost some 0:5 in school, and I remember feeling rather humiliated. I continued to stay back on Tuesdays, and worked with Bhowmik sir and the hockey coach (whose name I cannot recall at all unfortunately) – which led to a rather sudden inclusion in the Under-17 Hockey Team to play a Rotary tournament.
This was a massive highlight – really. I wrote an e-mail to my dad when it happened, asking for hockey shin-guards (because my old ones were not good enough for outdoor tournaments) with ankle support, and hockey stockings – and on his next trip to India, I had a pair of white colour Adidas shin-guards I was very happy with. I just looked through our chats, and I don’t know why I got frustrated with him when he asked me very reasonable questions about the shin-guards. He just asked for specifics: what size, what colour, where to buy them, and my responses reek of an irritation I can’t quite fathom. Sorry for that, Appa.
One of my friends in Grade 7 gifted me a new blue Rakshak hockey stick – which held a lot of sentimental value, because as an Indian brand, it reminded me of the Vijayanti stick in Chak De India!, and also was a stick the Indian hockey team used. I took that and the Slazenger to the tournament, where I came on as a second-half substitute in two group-stage matches, and confuddled my rather-senior, big, teammates by playing reverse-stick half the time. They yelled at me, I remember, which scared me because I was 4’8 or something at the time, puny, and these were 5’9-6’2 monsters. As a day scholar, I wasn’t close to any seniors – the boarders appeared to develop a bond, so I remember spending the bus ride back to school with the German 7th Grader who was also included on the team to his surprise.
The rest of the year was pretty uneventful. I played hockey with two or three people in Sports Hour: one v. two. When I moved to Inventure Academy, I tried asking around about hockey – and the school’s CEO had played and was interested, but my own interest seemed to be dipping. I stopped playing hockey altogether, switching over to basketball and tennis more seriously, developing those to a good, social level. Hockey became the sport I used to let out frustration from time-to-time, going onto the terrace of our house with a stick and a ball and whacking it against the wall. Truly though, I must’ve done this 4 times in the remaining 5 years I spent in Bangalore.
My love for hockey didn’t ever die though. I watched highlights of several matches, and watched a lot of the FIH games that happened if they coincided with dinner. I was really happy when the Hockey India League was founded, following those games with a sadness that there was no South Indian team. My sadness was underscored by the fact that Karnataka, and Coorg especially, was the cradle of Indian hockey – with legends like Len Aiyappa and M.P. Ganesh hailing from the region.
Having not played at high school, nor at undergraduate University, when I applied abroad, on 20 September 2019, I made this declaration that I’d play hockey wherever I went next. Cambridge has a lovely hockey tradition, and through Fresher’s Fair, I was able to sign-up and although St Edmund’s didn’t have a team, able to find two mixed college teams to play with.
I got myself the equipment, including a mouth-guard for the first time in my life (my canines are so grateful), and turned up to play for Selwyn/Trinity Hall on the weekend. To my teammates, during practice, I tried making it apparent to them that I had not played for ages, and I had last played on mud, not on turf. I don’t think I prepared them enough for how much I really needed their help to improve. Initially they stuck me up-top, which I now regret, because within 10 minutes I was so tired of making runs that I just dropped back and played defence the rest of the game, hardly moving out of my own D. It was 7-a-side half-pitch, and for the life of me I can’t imagine what playing full games will look like.
I made a bunch of mistakes, slipped up a couple of times and fell onto the turf, brazing my knee, we lost 1:7, but I was playing hockey again – after ten years. I was beaming when I came home. This year is probably going to be a long year in terms of improving in hockey, and I’m going to try to play in the lower College leagues to get up to Selwyn’s level if I can, something more relaxed to improve my skills first – but I was so very happy. My parents saw it, as did a couple of friends, and truly, I am so grateful to them both for supporting my desire to play the sport the first time by buying me the gear, and now, again, by buying bits of gear.
It’s crazy to think how many people help you to get here. People like Stallone sir who first taught me how to pick up the stick, to Bhowmik sir, who really had no obligation to stay back with me and play hockey with me for two years – to people I had never met in my life who answered my queries about Cambridge hockey over e-mail very politely and were okay with me joining in their weekend game having not played for so long.
One day I hope to hit a drag flick again and have enough confidence to play the entire game right-handed. That is likely to take a very long time.