Never, ever get into an argument with a fan of Indian hockey. So what if we won the cricket World Cup but we’re seven places away from the hockey World Cup? If someone’s a fan of Indian hockey, comparisons with Indian cricket are pointless. The hockey fan will admit to no such game as cricket.
She or he will also fall about laughing – and derisively at that – if you suggest that she or he spends five long, tedious hours watching an India-Pakistan cricket match. Indo-Pak matches in hockey are finished in 70 minutes flat, during which the Indian team will have decimated its arch-rival in style. After all, in 2010, the Indian hockey team eliminated the Pakistani hockey team not once, not twice, but four times at different tournaments. If sports ‘heroism’ is about beating Pakistan, then our men with hockey sticks can seriously give our cricketers the blues. But what are these cool(er) men in blue about? We met them to find out.
Heroes all the way
The trouble with 2010 is that it’s last year. Four Indo-Pak wins, that’s wonderful, but they’re done. This is 2011 and once again it’s a tough, cruel, exciting and crucial year of mighty challenges. What’s past is over. What will happen – that’s the crucial question. But it’s this aspect of the game that makes hockey so exciting for its fans. Will their heroes continue to be heroic? Or will they be the cause of heart-felt moans? To judge by the utter lack of political correctness in their conversation, our hockey players are determined to remain heroes. “Whenever I play Pakistan, my aim is to beat them,” says forward Shivendra Singh. “That’s because Pakistani players do not feel satisfied by losing once. You have to beat them over and over again to prove a point.”
You see that attitude even in the way they dress – they’re resolute, rugged, rustic in patches, convincingly retro-sexual and romantic about their success. Forward Rajpal Singh, midfielder Arjun Halappa, drag flicker VR Raghunath, forward Shivendra Singh, goalkeepers Adrian Joseph Dsouza and Bharat Chetri and defender Gurbaj Singh are chic in their own ways, glamorous in their own right. The seven senior players are responsible for the success the team has had over the last five years. Five of these senior players are representing the squad at the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup currently being played in Ipoh. (At the time this magazine went to press, they were about to take on Pakistan.) During the photo shoot for this story, Rajpal’s hand involuntarily moves to his moustache, his fingers pressing the ends for a commanding finish. Arjun wears the captain’s all-is-well smile. Gurbaj, the unparalleled lieutenant, thrusts out his chest. Bharat, the great wall, conceals his cool self within a crisp Darjeeling smile. Shivendra poses like a pro, as though he’s a veteran of the modelling ramps. Raghunath, a gift from Coorg to Indian hockey, hugs his teammates tight.Inked passion
On the field, these men are passionate – about the game and about victory. You see that passion on their bodies too. True, tattoos hardly make news these days, but the ones our hockey players have are worth examination. For instance, the five Olympic rings float on ace goalkeeper Adrian Joseph DSouza’s back. For an Indian hockey player, a win at the Olympics is the biggest dream of all. Adrian’s "very special" Olympic rings tattoo, inked on his back in 2006, keeps his fans on edge. His squad will have to face the Olympic qualifiers soon, to make it to the 2012 London event.
Senior drag flicker and defender VR Raghunath’s tattoo is a pair of hockey sticks and a ball, etched on one arm. "There is another tattoo on my forearm that is not usually visible," he says. "It’s my dad’s name. I am emotional about the fact that he is a committed hockey coach. I respect him for being a sportsman."
Bharat Chetri’s lion tattoo on his burly arm works well with his relaxed, laid-back approach to happiness. Shivendra Singh, the Gwalior Express, gives a whole new perspective to the word ‘commitment’. While other men tattoo their significant others’ names on their bodies, Shivendra takes romance to a whole new level. On his right shoulder is inked not his fiancée’s name (she’s Nishi Chauhan, a hockey player with the Railways), but a portrait of his fiancée’s face. “I had it done in Salta, Argentina,” Shivendra says fondly. “Nishi was really upset. She thought it must have been painful. But she was very flattered too.” Adrian has an eagle tattooed on his left shoulder, which he believes represents freedom. It reminds him of his fight with cancer – the outcome of an injury he’d suffered in a practice session in 2005. “The fight with cancer was a tough phase,” he says. “The injury was body- and mind-numbing. But I was happy with the fact that the injury was game-related and it happened on the field. Being injured outside the game really pinches a player.” the cool squad.
Forward Rajpal Singh, the former captain who led the squad to three podium finishes last year, is rather a stereotype. But it’s in a good way. On the field, Rajpal epitomises Punjabi aggression in Indian hockey. When he celebrates a goal, he usually flies across to a corner to be hugged by his teammates – moving a pointer finger around in the air as if he were spinning a sudarshan chakra. He sprints like a horse, his eyes follow the ball like a hawk’s. But inside, he is quite a philosopher. Does he mind the ‘aggressive’ tag given to him and other Punjabi players in the team? “No,” he says firmly. “Indian hockey has a history of Sikhs playing as forwards. It’s in our nature, our culture and history to live and play like warriors. What are you supposed to do when you are playing your rivals? Defend yourself. And to be able to defend, you have to be neat at attacking. People expect us to be aggressive and it pays.”
The liberal, accommodating and strategic Arjun Halappa can’t resist drawing lessons from other sports. He is a huge fan of the soccer team Manchester United. And, just like his teammates, he can’t stop admiring MS Dhoni and Co. “There is so much to learn from India’s victory in the cricket World Cup,” he says. “India played the best teams with a cool head and we are the world champions in cricket today. And Manchester United is an inspiration for the way it comes back into the game.” Meanwhile, Shivendra is excited and thoughtful over the sudden inclusion of young blood in the team. And Bharat and Adrian leave for an ice bath, sweating after practice as though they have returned from war. The Olympic rings float on Adrian’s back.
The cool brigade
He gives a whole new meaning to the word ‘commitment’ and has taken romance to another level. On his right shoulder is inked not his fiancée’s name but a portrait of her whole face. “My fiancée was really upset because she thought it must have been painful for me, but she was flattered too,” reveals Shivendra.
The tattoo on Bharat’s burly arm works very well with his relaxed, laid-back approach to happiness. It’s a lion with a full mane. But Bharat would rather not reveal the significance this big cat has for him. So it’s a mystery and it makes the Darjeeling player come across as a rather enigmatic person.
His arm shows off two hockey sticks and a ball. So there’s no way that you could mistake him for, say, a table tennis player! He also flaunts his father’s name on his forearm because he is very emotional about the fact that his dad is a very committed hockey coach. “I really
respect him for that,” says Raghunath.
Adrian Joseph D’Souza
The five Olympic rings float on Adrian’s back. For an Indian hockey player, a win in the Olympics is the biggest dream.
Home town: Coorg
Icon: All Coorg hockey players, MS Dhoni
Cool punch: Drag flicks, his smile
Moment: Making his father proud with his achievements
Unwinds by: Playing basketball and soccer
Home town: Gwalior
Icon: Sachin Tendulkar
Cool punch: Thrilling field goals and a bandana
Moment: Matches against Pakistan
Unwinds By: Playing video games on his mobile phone
Home town: Kodava Takk
Icon: Dhanraj Pillay
Cool punch: A goldsmith’s focus on the turf. He is hockey’s Mr Dependable
Moment: Being made the skipper for the Azlan Shah Cup 2011
Unwinds with: Wife and family. Loves oily food when he is allowed to have it
Home town: Chandigarh
Icon: Shaheed Bhagat Singh
Cool punch: Warrior looks. The sudarshan chakra spin
Moment: When, during an awards function, he was approached by Sachin Tendulkar.
Unwinds by: Practising at the Punjab University campus in Chandigarh
Home town: Darjeeling
Icon: Veteran hockey goal keeper Ashish Ballal
Cool punch: Crazy amount of patience and control during the toughest saves
Moment: CWG semi-finals against England, where he was carried on his teammates’ shoulders around the field
Unwinds by: Playing soccer and listening to music
Home town: Ferozpur
Icon: Singer Gurdas Mann
Cool punch: Warrior looks and a match-winner’s stance
Moment: The match against Pakistan at the Guangzhou Asian Games
Unwinds by: Driving on the highways
Adrian Joseph D’Souza
Home town: Mumbai
Icon: Sachin Tendulkar
Cool punch: The fighter attitude and the grit to return
Moment: Representing the country at the Athens Olympics
Unwinds by: Driving around Mumbai and polishing off sausages made by his mother
- From HT Brunch, May 15
Follow us on twitter.com/HTBrunch
Connect with us on facebook.com/hindustantimesbrunch