Most of Sharda Nand Tiwari’s summer school vacation was spent working in grocery stores in Lucknow. Not wanting to put the burden of his hobby on his father, a security guard, Tiwari saved every paisa of the 700 rupees he earned to buy hockey equipment.
A few hundred kilometers away in Karampur, Uttam Singh was living the dream of his father Krishnakant Singh. Krishnakant, an aspiring player, was forced to leave hockey and support the family after the untimely death of his father. So the small farmer invested most of his scarce resources in turning his son, Uttam, into a gamer.
Not far away in Atagaon, Vishnukant Singh was just six years old when he followed his sister Preeti, a national level player, to the village grounds. Since that day, there has been no going back.
With different motivations and fascinating backstories, the trio’s paths first crossed at the Sports Authority of India academy in Lucknow. Now, they are among 18 representing India at the World Youth Cup, where they will face Belgium in the quarter-finals in the capital of Odisha on Wednesday.
Five players on this team are from UP, signaling a rebirth of hockey in the state that was once the birthplace of the game in the country.
“It’s encouraging,” says manager and former player RP Singh. “People had forgotten the history of UP hockey. For almost two decades, we have not had a decent player who has been selected to play for India. This, I hope, will be the beginning of a new chapter. “
RP Singh belongs to a generation in which UP produced some of the most elegant players the game has ever seen, such as Mohammed Shahid, MP Singh, Mukesh Kumar and Zafar Iqbal. During the 1970s and 1980s, Indian teams were made up virtually of players from the most populous state.
For example, during a tour of Europe in 1982, 11 of the 16 team members came from the Meerut sports hostel. At the 1988 Seoul Olympics, six players were from the Lucknow hostel. In total, between 1976 and 1996, the state had produced around 60 internationals, including a dozen who competed in the Olympics.
So much so that even a cricket stadium in Lucknow is named after a hockey legend, KD Singh Babu.
However, ex-players say, the heady days also led to an overbearing attitude among some players, fostering indiscipline. This, combined with the failure in the evolution of training techniques in the academies, meant that the talent of the region began to be depleted.
And then there was the old “sifarish (recommendation)” problem in selecting for national tournaments. “Now we are trying to end that practice. Only those players who deserve to be on the team are selected, ”says RP Singh, who is the sporting director of the UP government.
The recent improvement in the performance of UP teams in the national championships – senior and junior, men and women – has led to their players being identified by national team scouts, paving the way to the training grounds.
Districts like Ghazipur, where the badlands have been turned into training grounds, have become the new catchment areas, replacing traditional hotbeds like Lucknow and Allahabad.
Three players from the Youth World Cup team, Uttam, Vishnukant and Rahul Rajbhar, have perfected their art in Karampur in Ghazipur, at an academy created by the late Tej Bahadur Singh, a hockey fan who turned a nondescript village into the nursery of this sport. Tokyo Olympics bronze medalist Lalit Upadhyay, the first in the state to be selected for the Games since Pawan Kumar in Atlanta 1996, spent some of her early years at this academy.
Upadhyay now guides players from this region. “He talks to us before and after games, telling us what we have done well and the areas we can improve,” says Uttam, who has scored four goals in three games at this World Cup. “Lalit has had a journey very similar to ours, so he understands us well.”
Uttam adds: “My father couldn’t keep playing because of family pressure. He was the sole breadwinner in the family and therefore could not concentrate on the game. It was not easy for him to take care of my expenses as well. But Tej Bahadur Singh, who passed away this year, and his brother Radhe Mohan Singh took care of my needs even after I moved to the Lucknow SAI. “
Goalkeeper Prashant Chauhan, a native of Varanasi, completes the UP quintet.
In the group matches of the World Cup, their first international matches in two years, these players displayed the qualities that have always been associated with UP players. Chauhan showed dexterity between the posts, Uttam showed an unerring eye for goal and Vishnu Kant showed remarkably fast wrists and exceptional skills with the stick.
They have all played a key role in the tournament, where defending champion India rallied after a shocking loss to France to qualify for the quarterfinals, thanks to victories over Canada and Poland.
RP Singh recognizes that there is no guarantee that success at a junior level will carry over to the senior field. But he is hopeful that this tournament will open the doors to other younger players.
“Representation on the national team is crucial to inspiring the next generation. For years, we didn’t have that. But now, when the younger groups look at these players, it will surely motivate them, ”he says. “I hope we go back to the days when half of the senior team is once again made up of UP players.”
"खाना विशेषज्ञ। जोम्बी प्रेमी। अति कफी अधिवक्ता। बियर ट्रेलब्लाजर। अप्रिय यात्रा फ्यान।"