It’s a sun-kissed July afternoon at the Hockey and Bandy Club, Breda in the Netherlands. India are playing in the final of the 2018 Champions Trophy, the 37th and last edition of what has been a brilliant tournament, played by the top six nations annually. The opponents are Australia with 14 titles in the bag. The stands are packed, perfect weather, around 250 plus Indian fans, waving the tricolour, who drove and jetted in from different parts of Europe. It is India’s second final. Ever.
India has just finished warming up on Pitch 1, a shout away from the main pitch where the final will be played. The Indian team is streaming out, kit bags on shoulders. Coach Harendra Singh shouts: “Battis, final nahi khelna?” Battis runs in from the bench where he has been tying his laces. He grins and joins his teammates. Battis, numerically 32 is the shirt number of Vivek Sagar Prasad, the 17-year-old midfielder.
For Vivek, this could be just another match, another local game in some town in Maharashtra or anywhere in India. No visible sign of nerves on a player who tends to get swallowed up in the striking circle. You would if you are barely touching 5 feet 3 inches.
India have missed a couple of chances in the first quarter and Australia make India pay in the 24th minute (2nd Q) when Blake Gover's powers in a penalty corner to take the lead. India’s misses continue; Mandeep’s shot goes off the post, Aussie goalkeeper Tyler Lovell has decided to play the final of his life, keeping away shots from Dilpreet Singh, Mandeep Singh and Lalit Upadhyay.
In the third quarter of the match, there are moments when the class of some of the Indian players is on full display. Harmanpreet Singh’s hit from just inside the centre finds Manpreet, who propels it inside the striking circle where Chinglensana takes a swipe, but the ball deflects off an Aussie defender stick. Deflections are wicked, surprise balls that zip into space not meant for them. Vivek has positioned himself, space in front, perfectly. Any other player would have moved towards the ball. Vivek moves away from it, a poacher’s sense plus the wisdom of a midfielder (beyond his age) telling him ‘wait.’
The ball rises after the ricochet. Extended stick, space now a luxury, Vivek’s swats it through the legs of Daniel Beale, past the surprised Tyler. It’s 1-1. Goal apart, Vivek rose several levels; that one goal marking him out as a player who understood the virtue of patience, resulting in that split-second goal.
So, when the FIH Rising Star of the Year Award was announced, it was no surprise that Vivek Sagar Prasad won it. Opinions, reactions, views, perspectives could be different, they always are. No denying that India, a top-four hockey nation, have a player who could in the coming years be the schemer, the mind, the playmaker.
At Breda, India lost in the shoot-out, a second consecutive Champions Trophy final given away. In the interview tent, Vivek’s body was still pumping adrenaline. It’s a loss he didn’t understand. “Nahi malum Kyun haar gaye? (Don’t know why we lost),” he says, his face reflective of the churn in his mind, still living the match.
Later, the India coach, then, Harendra Singh, said, “That goal was the sign of a mature player, a thinking player, who understands what to do in a particular moment.”
Maturity has been there since he was a youngster. “It’s a sign of the sanskar (upbringing),” says Rohit Prasad Sagar, his father, who is a teacher at the Prathmik Siksha Vidyalaya in Hoshangabad, a good 70 kms from Bhopal, once a huge centre for hockey talent.
Nobody in the family has ever played sports. Hockey was never on the mind till Vivek just picked up a stick and started playing. It’s a cliché but apt – the love affair had begun. “I never wanted him to play,” Vivek’s father admits. “Nobody in the vicinity had done anything great by playing sports. We all need jobs, money to survive.”
“And then somebody told me that to play at a higher level, you need approach,” he says. “Where would I get that from?” He didn’t need it. For a precocious talent like Vivek, someone with an eye to spot talent was more important than ‘approach.’
In stepped Ashok Kumar, the man whose match-winning goal gave India a 2-1 victory over Pakistan in the final of the 1975 World Cup. Being Dhyan Chand’s son (pedigree) also helped as he knew a thing or two about spotting talent.
“Behind every player, there is an inspiration or a pat on the back,” explains Ashok. “If I say who gave me the inspiration for playing hockey, it was Major Dhyan Chand and Roop Chand. I remember I went to Akola for the finals as a chief guest and that time I was working as the Chief Coach in the MP State Academy. I was watching the final match and he was playing the final match from the Tikamgarh team and that time he must have been 13-14 years. I saw an extraordinary thing in him, a small kid with not much height, not too old but played hockey like a pro.”
“Then I thought this kid needs help somewhere. I went up to him and asked whether he wants to join the MP State Academy. He agreed. He came to Bhopal in 10-12 days and I kept him with me in the house I was staying for 3 months. And then the trials and no one was there to stop him in the trials. He was selected for MP State.”
Vivek’s father has met Ashok twice, once when he was inducted into the Academy and then at an awards ceremony where Vivek was being honoured. “They said he has talent,” he said. “I didn’t know what that meant. But I believed them.”
Vivek’s father was worried about the financial aspect too. Sport is expensive. Besides talent, one needs money to foot travel and equipment costs. But the Academy in Bhopal took care of that. Vivek never asked for money at home. Maturity.
Even when Vivek met with an accident on the pitch, an opponent’s stick hit him on the left collarbone, resulting in a gash, the white of the bone showing. Surgery was immediate. “But complications developed later,” says Rohit. “He had lung issues, water had collected. Doctors said, it was touch and go. But he survived.”
The 2016 Junior World Cup was gone. No way Vivek could have recovered in time. Hell, even playing hockey seemed impossible. Quietly, he picked himself up. His father thought he would never play again. “After that kind of injury, who can?” asked Vivek’s father. Vivek had other ideas. So did Ashok. “He started walking and coming to the ground,” says Ashok. “I tied one of his hands and asked him to not use his injured hand and practice with one hand with all precautions.”
Ashok was ecstatic on Vivek winning the FIH Award, the first Indian player to win the top prize in any category (later Lalremsiami (FIH Rising Star of the Year for women) and then Indian captain Manpreet Singh won the Men’s FIH Player of the Year)
“Vivek Sagar is a new rising star and the youngest boy of the team has come up. The FIH has recognised his game, his art. I am very happy,” said Ashok. After winning the award, Vivek called Ashok. “Yes, I got his call and I told him that keep this happiness within you and don’t let this out. Keep this pride within you and don’t let it go to your head. There are other things that you have to achieve.”
— International Hockey Federation (@FIH_Hockey) February 10, 2020
After playing the Champions Trophy, the Commonwealth Games, Asian Games and the Youth Olympic Games, Vivek, surprisingly was dropped for the 2018 World Cup. To many it was shocking. One could argue that at the age of 18, he had many years in front of him. But the boy had played everything that was thrown at him and shown improvement at every step. India had dropped Sardar Singh, their centre-midfielder for the World Cup. Vivek was the right man for the job – the hunger, ambition, aspiration and the dream to fill those big boots would have been inspiring for him. However, he sat on the sidelines.
“Yes, he should have been chosen and I was disappointed that this kid was not selected otherwise we would have had a better result,” says Ashok. “Don’t know what was the thinking of the selection committee then but I believe he should have been there.” India lost their quarter-final game to Holland.
Former Indian captain, midfielder and the coach to have seen Vivek in his formative years, Jude Felix, also wants to understand why he was dropped for the World Cup. “If you didn’t find the boy useful, why play him in all these big tournaments,” asks Jude. “And if you want someone else, induct him early. I never quite understood what happens in those selection meetings. And if you dropped him for the World Cup, why did you take him back?”
Vivek dedicated the FIH award to his team-mates. “I would like to dedicate this award to my teammates and staff members, as with their help, I performed well last year. To improve my current form, I am focussing on my skills and fitness.”
With the FIH Pro League on, a place in the Indian side cemented, a future that can only get brighter, how far as a player can Vivek go?
“Very far,” says Jude. “He is committed to the sport. The basics are all there. Now, he needs to receive the ball more and gain some strength. The marking is so tight in the game today that ball receiving should be of the highest order. The better you receive with space on your side, the better the push, pass to a player.”
There have been discussions on his height (or lack of it) and how would he pierce through a field of defenders that are six feet plus. Jude, himself, wasn’t tall and neither was Holland’s versatile midfielder, Olympic gold and World Champion, Marc Delissen or for that matter, Australia’s legend, Jamie Dwyer. But they were quick and had the vision to see what the opposition defenders couldn’t fathom in that split second of holding and passing the ball.
“Marc Delissen was a brilliant playmaker,” says Jude. “He would seem a little lazy but that mind out-thought almost everybody on the pitch. Vivek is faster than Marc on the field. Of course, the game has gotten faster too. Vivek’s strength is that he sees things and is smart when it comes to anticipation.”
Jude says that since Sardar retired, there has been no central midfielder to hold the game. “That is where they should groom Vivek. He is the perfect central midfielder who has the slice ball, vision and is quick enough to pass and dart into pockets creating space as he runs. He is one midfielder in the Indian team who hates passing back.”
As awards come, scrutiny increases. Teams mark you out. Suddenly, space would decrease. You feel boxed in. “It will happen,” says Jude. “But he is smart enough to understand that. He will overcome.”
The things he cannot overcome, Vivek Sagar Prasad always has a smile for that. He goes home to Hoshangabad once in a while. A month back he was there for a couple of days. “Alu Paratha was ready for him,” says his father. “He distributed T-shirts, shoes and some sticks to young boys and after a few days he was off.” Nobody in the family has yet seen him play inside a stadium. They watch on TV and on the mobile. “I will try to go and watch a Pro League game in Bhubaneswar once the school holidays begin,” says Vivek’s father.
“Murkh hai? (He is a fool) Kuch Nahi Karega (will never do anything),” mutters Vivek, when he goes home, making sure his father is within hearing distance. His father explains. “I used to call him all that when he was young so now very quietly he comes and says it below his breath and walks way.” The father laughs.
The boy has grown up. Hockey has made him a star. The tiny tot with a stick almost his height has already created history. There will be more opportunities. The Vivek Prasad Sagar show promises more brilliance ahead.
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Updated Date: Feb 16, 2020 13:41:03 IST