“The great fallacy is that the game is first and last about winning. It is nothing of the kind. The game is about glory, it is about doing things in style and with a flourish, about going out and beating the other lot, not waiting for them to die of boredom” – Danny Blanchflower, Tottenham Hotspur captain
Though Rajiv Mishra never had a clue about Spurs, he did things in style. His long, curly hair bobbing as he pounded the turf, slipping in and around defenders, popping up like a water buoy when a defender least expected to see him. His bandana was stylish and in training he wore t-shirts with Milan embossed on them. Rajiv’s goals were no less spectacular. There was speed in his movement – fast forward a go-cart race and you have Rajiv Mishra.
As the Indian hockey team gets ready to take on Australia in the Junior World Cup semifinals in Lucknow on Friday, some 300-odd kilometres away, a six-hour drive to the East in Varanasi, Rajiv Mishra in all probability will not be watching what he once experienced – as he once stood on the cusp of being India’s most dangerous centre-forward.
It was Milton Keynes, back in 1997. India had entered the semifinals of a junior World Cup for the first time. The opponent was five-time finalists and reigning world champions, Germany. In the last four editions before 97’, Germany had easily outplayed the rest of the world to be champions. Milton Keynes was not supposed to be any different.
For a bookie, this was a no bet; Germany was supposed to steam roll India. But Indian coach Vasudevan Bhaskaran had watched Pakistan dismantle Germany 6-2 in the pool stages and knew Germany were susceptible against pace. Locked 3-3 at the end of regulation time, extra-time kicked in and the team that scored first would win by a golden goal. Surprisingly, it was Germany that looked tired. India kept attacking, trying to build a cohesive pattern and also not give away the ball.
Samir Dad, in the fifth minute of extra time, who would later play the 2000 Sydney Olympics, moved in from the right flank, dodged past a German defender and from inside the circle took a shot that the German goalkeeper took on the pads. Rajiv Mishra, with two defenders constantly on him, found extra space in that split second, picked up the rebound and with a low flick gave India the golden goal and a place, for the first time, in a Junior World Cup final. Germany, for the first time, failed to enter the final. It was a crushing defeat for them as they had led India 2-0 and then 3-2 with only a minute left on the clock.
Though, India lost the final to Australia 2-3, failing to score off 12 penalty corners in a match that was marred by some inept referring from Germany’s Richard Wolter and Spain’s Xavier Adell, Rajiv Mishra, with six goals in the tournament, was being hailed as the next big thing. Australian coach Barry Dancer, through the final, had two to three defenders marking Rajiv and though it created space for the Indians, they just couldn’t close down the match. In the second half, Rajiv Mishra broke through a cordon of four defenders and like a comet headed for the goal before a defender pulled him by his shirt and literally stopped him dead in the middle of the striking circle. It wasn’t a stroke but a penalty corner. Many years later when reminded of that final, Dancer would say, “There was no other way one could have stopped a man like Rajiv. His speed was tremendous and before you could even realise, he was past you.”
Rajiv came back a hero. Even though India was the runners-up, a huge crowd welcomed the team back at the Delhi airport. It seemed that with Dhanraj Pillay and Rajiv Mishra, India was set to dominate world hockey, or at least make a push for the top four positions. The 1998 World Cup at Utrecht (Holland) was around the corner and the national camp was at Patiala. In a training game, Rajiv Mishra, as always, bounded in, trapping the ball on the stick and heading for goal. AB Subbiah, the Indian goalkeeper came out of his charge and in a body clash, his pads slammed onto Rajiv’s knees.
Rajiv hobbled off and in a few days the swelling subsided. Yet, when he started training and playing, he felt a stab of pain when he turned or switched pace – his hallmark as a forward. Rajiv continued playing but the pain refused to go away. Finally, worried, he went to Dr Ashok Rajgopal. Surgery done, Rajiv went into rehabilitation. But apparently, he played a match a few weeks before his assigned rest period ended. The match was on Delhi’s Shivaji Stadium where the turf had worn off, giving the pitch the feel of an ice-skating arena. It was here that he fell again.
Yet he was chosen for the 1998 World Cup squad; but sat through the tournament without playing a single match. With the pain increasing and for the first time, Rajiv worrying about his future, he landed up at Dr Anant Joshi’s clinic in Mumbai. In an interview in 2004, Rajiv had said, “Dr Joshi told me I can try my best with the knee but it’s slightly late. You have been advised wrongly. You shouldn’t have trained at all.”
With everybody turning away, including the Indian Hockey Federation, Rajiv became desperate. His medical and surgery bills were not cleared by the Federation. Frustrated, seeing his dream of playing for India at the Olympics dying slowly, he turned to drink. “I drank till I collapsed, sleep coming over me like a balm,” he once said. His only respite was the Railways job but there too he fought a battle for a promotion which he felt he deserved. “I joined Railways in an ordinary post and even after helping India reach the Junior World Cup, there were no promotions,” he said, way back in 2004. The lasting images of Rajiv Mishra are the ones where he scores the golden goal against Germany and the ones of the World Cup final where Aussie defenders virtually latch onto him like limpets, trying to keep him away from scoring.
Today, Bhaskaran wistfully remembers those days when India had a champion goal scorer. “We miss his talent, even now,” says Bhaskaran. “He could make space, was strong with the ball, could eliminate the opponent with a shoulder dodge and most importantly, he could score with a push, small hit and a high push. It’s a pity we missed such a talented forward.”
Bhaskaran, who also captained the 80’ Olympic team to a gold medal, does agree that probably somewhere we failed Rajiv as a nation. By not understanding the injury that happened to him and then throwing him away like lint on a coat. “I totally agree that we failed him,” says Bhaskaran. “I did my best by taking him to some of the best army ortho specialists. But by then Rajiv just didn’t want to stay in Delhi.”
Rajiv Mishra is probably, still travelling on trains in and around Benares, checking tickets. Not long ago, people actually bought tickets to watch him. On a very hot afternoon in Benares, he once said, "I only wanted to be the world’s most dangerous forward.” The national psyche doesn’t recoil anymore. Such incidents, killing of careers are mundane.
On Friday, when Harendra Singh’s team plays Australia, it will do good to win and enter what will be India’s third Junior World Cup final. Maybe, only then, Rajiv Mishra, somewhere in Benares will find enough courage to pick up a remote and watch a hockey match again.
Updated Date: Dec 16, 2016 13:04:24 IST