Aug 15, 2018

The Day I Became A Hockey Fanatic

Players jumping on Ashish Ballal after penalty strokes

One warm sunny morning of 1996 was the first time I saw a hockey stick. My school had introduced a new team sport (the school already had a cricket and football team) and on enquiring about it with the class teacher, we found that our school had introduced coaching for India’s national game called ‘hockey’ and coaching for it was just Rs. 20 per month.
Since my birth to 1996, I had heard about two sports only, cricket and football. Excitedly, I told my parents about a ‘new’ game called hockey and how I wanted to enroll in it

After taking my parents permission (both are hockey fans, father even played state), I enrolled in coaching and started learning tricks and trade of the game.
Everyday started with 1 hour of hockey practice and evenings ended with playing hockey with my cousins on streets.

Two years later, everything changed.

Fast forwarding to 2 years afternoon of 19th December 1998, I was doing what a kid of 9 years does- watching cartoon. My mother came to me and said in Punjabi, ‘Remote de, ASIAD de finals aa’ (Give me the TV remote, Asian Games finals are on). Confused, I asked her what is ASIAD? She replied by telling me about a sporting event in which Asian teams compete in different sporting events and hockey finals between India and Korea will be played in some time. 

Surprised to know that even hockey is played on big levels (class teacher did not tell us kids, that India has won 8 Gold medals in Olympics), we switched to DD in anticipation of the finals between India and Korea.

I had never seen a hockey game in my life. Even in school we were never made to play the matches, we were only learning how to dribble, or pass, or run with the ball but never a full-fledged hockey game. Before the match started, my mother told me something- ‘batti saal ho gaye aa, India nu Gold jite hue. Finals bahot vaar khele aa but Gold nahi jite’ (It has been 32 years since India has won Gold in Asian Games, we have played finals many times, but we have not won a Gold medal). Even today, after nearly 20 years, I remember her telling me this- we have not won a Gold in Asian Games for 32 years.

The game started on a disastrous note as India conceded a goal in 6th minute through a penalty corner scored with Yeo Woon-Kon. As the match progressed, there was one Indian player who caught my eye. A player will superior skills and long hair. The player’s name as my mother told me was Dhanraj Pillay. 

Remember all the superlatives we heard about Dhyan Chand, how he had magical skills, great control over the ball, brilliant dribbling. I had found my Dhyan Chand in Dhanraj Pillay. He was captaining the side in the tournament and was displaying something special in the finals. Electric pace, ball control and dribbling everything was there. In the 22nd minute of the play, Dhanraj Pillay scored off a penalty corner to level the game. 

Both teams continued to create chances throughout the game but could not get a breakthrough. After 70 minutes of regulation time and 15 minutes of extra time, the game was still locked at 1-1.
‘Hun penalty strokes to winner decide karange’- said my mother. (Penalty strokes will decide the winner of Gold medal match).

Despite never watching a hockey match in my life, I could feel the tension, I was worried about India. Only thing in my mind before the start of penalty corners was 32 years. 

As soon as the penalty strokes began, all eyes were on one player, Indian keeper Ashish Ballal. Ashish Ballal had already played for 85 minutes that day and despite the tiring matching (Korea was relentless with their attacks) his body language was of a cheetah.

While Ashish Ballal was raring to go, this young kid (me) was scared to my wits end with heart pounding like a drum. I remember listening to AIR commentary of 1996 cricket World Cup quarter finals between India and Pakistan and I remember the faces of worried people all around me. I did not feel anything during the cricket World Cup but this, Asian Games finals was something different

Korea went first and scored, India’s Ramandeep Singh also scored. (Sigh of relief)
When Ashish Ballal jumped on his right to save the second stroke, I jumped with joy. He could not mange to save the third one but the fourth one was hit right at his glove and made an easy save (YES!!)

Mukesh Kumar stepped up to take India’s 4th stroke. He hit it low and hard on keeper’s left and the entire stadium erupted with joy. India had won a Gold medal after 32 years. 

While I was expecting the euphoria of winning the trophy, only thing I could see was tears. Tears of joy were rolling from the eyes of every Indian player and officials. Dhanraj Pillay was inconsolable, there was no stopping his crying.

And that I believe what made my fall in love with hockey. The long wait of 32 years, the tears of joy from the players. The inconsolable Dhanraj Pillay. 

I had finally found my sport, something that I could never forget.

The moment medals were being awarded to teary eyed hockey players. Emotions of this achievement over powering every other sense in their body.

Never since that day has Indian flag looked beautiful when it was hoisted. Never since that day the Indian national anthem has brought the same feeling of pride in me. And never since that day, I saw grown up men crying hysterically for hockey.

That match itself was nothing special, India has played many great matches in last 20 years, but no match has been on par with the emotional journey I went through that day.

I have often thought about his day with other great ones but no other win has matched the raw emotion that the 1998 Asian Games final gave me that day

And, that was the day hockey left an inedible mark on me. And, that day I became a hockey fanatic.

It has been nearly 20 years since and day and in next couple of days, Indian hockey team will soon begin their quest to win 2018 Asian Games and I hope the current men in blue take some inspiration from the guys who played in 1998 Asian Games


- A Die Hard Hockey Fan

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