Merzban Patel admits he has never been a very good hockey player.
But for 35 years, he has taught hundreds of boys from low-income families how to play the game.
Many of them have gone on to play in the national hockey team at Olympic matches.
Patel not only trains children for free, but also funds their equipment and nutrition. This week, as the Hockey World Cup was nearing its end, the 59-year-old received the CNN-IBN Real Heroes Award for his contribution to the sport.
“Children from poor backgrounds are more passionate about the sport than privileged ones, because it is their bread and butter,” said Patel, who got exposed to hockey at 18 at the Byculla railway quarters, where his family lived.
He decided to get into coaching to give less fortunate boys a chance to get better jobs through the sport.
Patel’s inspiration is the late Balram Krishna Mohite, a former national-level referee and founder of the Bombay Republicans’ Club where Patel has been coaching since 1975. “Mohite would pawn his wife’s jewellery to pay for the children’s training and I take loans,” said Patel, whose job as hockey coach for two south Mumbai schools earns him Rs 6,000 a month.
To ‘Bawa’, as Patel is fondly called at the Mumbai Hockey Association, motivating the player is a coach’s primary job. “I follow up on my boys and talk to their parents a lot because in today’s urban education system, there is no place for sports,” Patel said. He often helps students with their homework.
His biggest grouse is the lack of funds for the game. “Corporate houses put in money only where they get returns. But real players are only born when there is investment at the grassroots, focused on a child’s nutrition, physiology and psychology.”
Though he does not grudge the attention given to cricket, Patel sees just one cure to the problem. “Hockey now needs an IPL of its