Catching them young to revive India’s glorious hockey past
It’s just after sunrise on a foggy winter morning in north India. Most people are snuggled up in quilts, but a group of teenagers with hockey sticks is out on the field. The ragtag bunch chasing a ball in Khera Garhi village, about 20 kilometres from central Delhi, shares a dream — to play in India’s field hockey team.
It’s an unusual dream in a country obsessed with cricket, but one that former national player Rajesh Chauhan hopes to foster among youngsters across India. Chauhan, 37, played for India during the second half of the 1990’s and set up the Jai Bharat Hockey Academy in 2011 to try to restore Indian hockey to its former glory.
India was a men’s hockey superpower in the last century, winning eight Olympic gold medals. Since 1980, the national team’s fortunes have declined.
Chauhan told India Insight that he hopes to discover the next generation of medal winners among his wards at the academy. He breaks off frequently to shout instructions to his students practising on the turf, which is nothing but muddy ground next to a road where trucks trundle past a telecommunications tower.
About 70 students, half of whom stay in a nearby hostel, have come from Delhi and its neighbouring states to hone their hockey skills. Some wake up before sunrise to travel to the academy, putting in several hours of practice before and after school.
“Hockey just turns me on. This is something which I want in my life, to become a hockey player,” said Happy Bharat, a gangly 14-year-old whose sunny disposition seems to suit his unusual first name.
Happy is the son of a bus conductor, and many like him come from poor families.
“We have children of farmers, carpenters, daily wage labourers, soldiers, etc. but this fantastic game cuts through their diversified socio-economic platforms and knits them in one thread,” said Chauhan.
The academy, which operates as a non-profit, gives scholarships and financial aid to talented youngsters from poor families. Five of the six coaches at the academy work for free. The sixth takes a nominal fee.
The village elders of Khera provide land and donate money. Trainees at the academy who study at the local school pay a subsidized fee of 20 rupees (about 30 cents) per month.
Rakesh Kumar, who usually plays in the midfielder position, is one such beneficiary.
“Everything is available in the academy. Hostel, meals thrice a day, sporting kit and good coaching,” said the 15-year-old orphan, who stays with his brother-in-law.
The training programme is showing results.
Trainees at the Jai Bharat Hockey Academy have participated in about 20 national-level tournaments. At the Under-14 national school games in November, 12 players from the academy travelled to Ranchi in eastern India, representing the national capital, and won Delhi a bronze in the hockey tournament.
Vikas, a carpenter’s son, was part of the Delhi team in Ranchi.
“I scored eight goals in that tournament, but still regret that we finished third. God willing, we will be at the top next time,” he said.
The shy 12-year-old, who gave only his first name, was thrilled to discuss hockey terms such as centre-forward, drag flick, scoop, and penalty corner.
“I play at the centre-forward position and right now, I am learning the tricky move of drag flick,” said Vikas, who idolizes Jugraj Singh, a drag-flicker on India’s national team whose promising career was cut short by a car accident in 2003.
Lack of proper coaching has been often blamed for India’s failure to groom raw talent into world-beaters. Chauhan, who didn’t have good coaches or facilities while growing up, said he didn’t want India’s next generation of hockey players to suffer.
“The problems I faced during my training somewhere pushed me since the very beginning to set up such an academy. I know the problems, I just needed to find their solutions,” he said.
Around 15 percent of the academy’s finances are spent on sports equipment with the Delhi government providing kits. Meals for children are prepared according to nutrition guidelines from the Sports Authority of India.
Chauhan wants to do more to revive hockey in India and wants Arvind Kejriwal, Delhi’s newly elected chief minister, to help.
“There are around 3,000 schools in Delhi. We can go and train them,” said Chauhan. “And why only them, there are so many unfortunate kids who are forced into beggary … The government can take care of their other needs and we will train them as world-class hockey players.”
(Editing by Tony Tharakan and Robert MacMillan; Follow Amit on Twitter @leosamit, Tony @tonytharakan and Robert @bobbymacReports|This article is website-exclusive and cannot be reproduced in any form without permission)