Indian hockey has suffered in recent years with key players suffering mishaps before World Cups. The story this year is no different with the tournament beginning tomorrow, writes Sundeep Misra
The Hague: Getting injured before a World Cup is like a trend in Indian hockey. Off-late, it's become a full-fledged jinx. Twenty four years back, in an early afternoon World Cup match, at the National Stadium in Lahore, Ram Prakash Singh was on his customary muscular run inside the Soviet Union striking circle when he lost the ball to a defender.
India hockey player Jugraj Singh at a hospital in New Delhi in 2003. He underwent treatment for multiple injuries sustained in a car crash in September 2003. Pic/AFP
One doesn't remember the name of the Soviet defender but he was tall and built like an oak tree. The defender's shot got deflected of another player's stick and hit RP between the lips and
chin. Blood spurted like a freshly struck oil well. By evening, RP's face was covered in bandages. He did play in the end stages of the World Cup but the injury took away the momentum from India.
Four years later, in 1993, India was playing the World Cup qualifiers in Poznan (Poland) when Cornelius D'Costa, a hugely talented full back, fell while tackling, hurting his injury in the process. In fact, he lay outside the ground with no doctor in sight.
The Indian team then had decided to play a World Cup qualifier without a doctor in tow. Cornelius underwent knee surgery but that power and poise had been lost in Poznan; a star defender had been sent into early retirement.
While Cornelius was consulting doctors in a bid to revive his career, a Benares-based centre-forward was creating waves across Europe. After making it to the 1997 Indian junior World Cup team, Rajiv Mishra struck the match-winner in the semi-finals against Germany; India had found the perfect striker.
The curly haired Railway employee was being touted as the next big thing. Later, at a 1998 World Cup preparatory camp, in his customary, fearless manner, Rajiv raced into the striking circle and went for goal. The goalkeeper charged out, slamming those rock-hard pads into the striker's knee.
Though selected in the team, Rajiv warmed the 1998 World Cup bench. After a year of surgeries and countless attempts at a comeback, Rajiv gave up. He is till with Railways, but a bitter man.
If Rajiv sat out during the 1998 World Cup, captain of the Indian side at Utrecht, Dhanraj Pillay, carried an injury into the World Cup. The skipper either hid the injury or the team management thought he would recover. None of that happened. Pillay, known for his turn of pace and sudden sprint, played as if on crutches.
Mumbai lad Yuvraj Walmiki has been named as a replacement for Nitin Thimmaiah
The jinx or the malevolent force struck again in 2006. Sitting calmly and going to Delhi on the Shatabdi to catch the flight with his mates to Monchengladbach for the World Cup, Sandeep Singh encountered pain; like he would say later, "I felt I was dying."
Later he woke up in hospital and discovered a bullet had entered his back, passing his spine by micro-millimetres. Somebody's gun had fired by mistake and found Sandeep's back. India suffered in the 2006 World Cup for the lack of a penalty corner convertor.
Yet another blow
Here at The Hague, it's been raining for the last two days. The clouds are low and the mood in the Indian camp is being desperately lifted. Two players, a part of the core preparatory camp of coach Terry Walsh have already left for home without scoring a goal in the World Cup.
Ramandeep Singh, part of the junior World Cup team, was hit by a rising ball and needed surgery on the face. Nitin Thimmiah tore a hamstring and is out for four weeks. Both will watch the World Cup at home.
The replacements have flown in – Lalit Upadhyay and Yuvraj Walmiki. Both are talented, but a World Cup pitch is slightly different from the ones they encounter during the Hockey India League. Walmiki is the experienced one, part of the campaign that won the first Asian Champions Trophy under the then Aussie coach Michael Nobbs.
Later, as was the rumour, he preferred the good life to the hard training that the sport demands. But now he is back and hopefully, for the handful of chances that India has, he would cash in and try and lift the tri-colour.
All the injuries, jinx, superstitions, lack of training, or over-training in the Delhi heat will have no place when India line-up against Belgium on May 31. A victory will give them three points, but largely, a battle against the 'jinx' would have been won in the mind.
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The writer is a Delhi-based sports journalist