by Disha Pawar
One of the most popular faces of Indian hockey, Yuvraj Walmiki rose to fame in 2011 with a gold medal performance at the Asian Champions Trophy. He continued to play world-class hockey till 2014 before he started to fade away into the backdrop to give way to another Walmiki- Devindar, his younger brother.
While playing in the Olympics still remains a long-cherished dream for Yuvraj, FistoSports in a no-holds-barred conversation unearthed several other aspects of hockey that continue to be a thing of worry.
You’ve been part of the 2011 Asian Champions Trophy winning team and have represented India on many occasions. How long is it going to be until you bounce back into action for the Indian side again?
The hunger of playing for India will never die. There have been lots of ups and downs with regards to my career, be it injuries or politics, but I am not giving up anytime soon. Asian Champions Trophy really changed my life for the better. I became a famous player overnight. Things started falling apart from 2014 onwards before the injury ahead of 2012 London Olympics. Late last year, I underwent a surgery and now thankfully I am back in action again. As far as India is concerned I will push myself harder because for a matter of fact I know I have only 4-5 years before my body gives up. Athletes do have a shelf life, so I will keep pushing hard to make it to the team again.
You’ve time and again spoken of negligence or ignorance from the government’s side to provide you with a better shelter for your performance at the Asian Champions Trophy. Has the case finally been settled? Or is it still in process?
No, the process is still on. In 2011, the then government promised me a home for my contribution to the Asian Champions Trophy, but I still haven’t got it yet. I have made multiple visits to the Mantralaya since, but all they say is ‘ho jaayega’. I am only waiting patiently and hoping that I do get the promised reward soon.
How difficult was it to run from pillar to post for something that you deserved and earned through sheer hard work? Do you feel a sense of disappointment that the nation for whom you gave it all you had turned their backs on you in the end?
I have been through so much in my life that these things do not deter my spirit. It does get me upset but I have seen a much worse time, so I keep think about all that I have achieved so far and that in itself fills me up with positivity.
You were banned from playing Hockey before HIL last year, what was the reason was that? And now that you are back, are you looking forward to HIL? What positive effects does the league bring to hockey?
Yes, I was banned for a period of four months which unfortunately was during the fourth season of Hockey India League. I wouldn’t want to talk about the reason for my ban because honestly I myself am still unaware. They say it was because of misconduct on field, but I do not remember getting any penalty card during the matches. That was one of the toughest parts of my career too, because apart from losing out on an opportunity to play world-class hockey I also lost a chance to earn money. An amount of 50,000 USD along with a period of 45 days of hockey is a huge amount.
However, money will come and go, but what I regret the most is the chance of losing out on an opportunity. In 18 years of hockey career I have never seen a selector coming for a Nehru Cup tournament. Shashtri tournament, Bombay Gold Cup or any other domestic level tournament and watching the game. But national level tournaments like HIL and All India do play an important role. These are the only two tournaments where players can play and be picked up by selectors for further matches.
Does this mean the ban was made with a motive to highlight another player who plays your position?
No, I won’t say that. I definitely can’t say that, I am a player and my job is to play the best of my hockey. There are a lot of players who play my position. But the number of chances they got to prove themselves have definitely been higher than what I have got. All I can say is, had I got the same amount of opportunity, I would have made it to the team too. I made my junior debut for India in 2008 and in 2010 played my first tournament for the senior team. Post 2014, I found myself playing only one major tournament in the entire year. My only request to the federation is to call me to the camp and give me a fair chance to be on par with others. Don’t select me but keep me in the camp for at least four-five tournaments, then see if I make progress or not.
Can you elaborate on that?
Be it hockey or any other sport, if there’s a gap of two-three tournaments, it gets difficult to get back in the same form. Practice matches are different from actual tournament. In the former, you are only playing with your set of players, but in terms of international matches, you get to play with players from other countries. It gives you the exposure and experience to learn better. The chances that other players got are truly way higher than the ones I got. Itna mauka dene ke baad toh ‘Gadha bhi Ghoda ho jaata hai’, if you consider me one among the many donkeys, give me a chance to try and become a horse.
An injury just before London Olympics in 2012 deprived you of participating in the Olympics, do you see yourself making it to the team for Tokyo 2020?
I still have a lot of hockey left in me. Whoever goes to the camp obviously goes with the aim of wanting to play for India, be it Olympics or other tournaments, nobody wants to be dropped. Same goes with me. Rejections have long stopped bothering me and it will never shatter my spirit to bounce back in action again.
Where do you think you lack, considering you are one of the most talented senior players?
I myself am clueless. I don’t have a problem with not being on the team, the only problem is tell me where I lack so I can work on those areas and come back better prepared. Also, getting an opportunity is another thing. Every time I got dropped from the team, I asked the coach was why I am not on the team?
The only answer I got from Roelant Oltmans was, “No, Yuvraj you are one of the most talented players in the country. You also have good goal-scoring techniques.” So honestly, I don’t know where I lack. Call me to camp, let me learn, make mistakes, go back home, take it as a homework and come back again, if I still do not justify my game then kick me out. But give me a chance at least!
Cricket and hockey have long been compared in terms of their popularity, do you think Hockey is getting there again?
There is a reason why we talk so highly about cricket today and consider it to be a religion. Cricket has all the rights to be in the limelight, they have earned it for themselves. None of the senior players talk bad about their juniors or the board of cricket. If they feel there is a problem they look at finding solutions and not replacements.
What are the areas you think Hockey in India lacks?
The mentality level is very low, half the players are struggling. Most of the referees are international officials and if the players want to have a review or a referral to the third umpire, they hesitate to go about. It’s all about the mentality. Educate hockey players first and then see the change. Let’s look at Virat Kohli. He is one of the most celebrated sports stars today not just in India but the world over.
However, early on in his career, he too remained in the news for several wrong reasons. He would show middle finger to the crowd and would become too aggressive on and off field. But none of that came in the way of his career. He had the support of the cricket board and senior players. They guided him on where he is going wrong and what all things to cut down on, and he did! And look where he is today! If you get proper guidance, you can make it big. It’s very sad to say this, but our hockey players don’t want to grow. They have made a borderline for themselves which they don’t want to cross. Why can’t a hockey player drive around in a BMW? They make enough money in today’s age and we can’t complain that Hockey in India does not have money! An average hockey player who hasn’t seen the face of India camp earns anywhere between 5-6 lakhs per month during Hockey India League or any other major tournament.
You mentioned about having only 4-5 more years to continue playing hockey before you hang up your boots, so what are your post-retirement plans?
Definitely start an academy of my own and give back to the sport. I want to start a facility for the underprivileged children from Mumbai where I can provide them with everything that I can to excel in the sport. I would also like to take care of the education of 4-5 children and ensure they get everything they deserve in order to become good sportspersons in future. This isn’t limited only to hockey, but whichever sport they are inclined towards. I obviously can’t do this individually, I would need sponsors to support my dream. I don’t want to change the world, because I know I can’t. But I know I can change the future of at least four to five children and make them ready for future.
Are you already doing your bit to give back to the sport?
Yes, I am already doing it, but I don’t like to show it off on social media time and again. Whenever I come back from Germany I get 10-20 hockey sticks for the lesser-privileged children. I remember my younger days when I didn’t have resources to play and I would literally beg from other senior players ki bhiaya ek hockey stick de do. I am doing my bit and I think every sportsman should do their bit to give back to the sport so that upcoming players don’t suffer from what we did in childhood.
Today, there are officers holding good positions at the government level, the same jobs they got through Hockey, but they don’t want to come out and coach. It’s very difficult to put your hands in pocket and give back to the sport/society.
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