Young athletes wait for group sports to kick off, knowing they're losing precious time to play and win

Updated: 13 September, 2020 08:07 IST | Anju Maskeri | Mumbai

With school tournaments and professional leagues on pause since mid-March, young Mumbaikars with sporting ambitions wonder if they'll be good enough when they re-hit the field

Scott Rodrigues, a student of Don Bosco High School, practises football at a park in Wadala. He says he was hoping to win laurels in his final year at school, but that will not be possible. Pic/ Suresh Karkera
Scott Rodrigues, a student of Don Bosco High School, practises football at a park in Wadala. He says he was hoping to win laurels in his final year at school, but that will not be possible. Pic/ Suresh Karkera

Scott Rodrigues had big plans for this year. The Std 10 student and star football player at Matunga's Don Bosco School had been training hard to be on top of the game. "It's my final year at school and I was hoping to bring home some laurels," says Rodrigues, who, last October, was lauded for his stellar performance in the boys' U-16 Ahmed Sailor Inter-school Football Tournament, held at the Cooperage Grounds. Unfortunately, the Coronavirus pandemic has dashed the 15-year-old's dreams. He has had to contend with forced social isolation, run drills by himself and try not to think about the potentially lost football season.

Nafeesh Khan, cricket coach
Nafeesh Khan, cricket coach

To halt the spread of the virus and safeguard the health of athletes, most major sporting events at international, regional and national levels were cancelled or postponed, including marathons, football tournaments, athletics championships and basketball games. In fact, the Olympics and Paralympics were postponed, too, for the first time in the history of the modern games, and are now scheduled to be held in 2021. There is still no certainty regarding when the major sports leagues can resume play, even as the country is well into the sixth month of quarantine. The guidelines defining the latest unlocking of the city of Mumbai didn't make mention of group sports resuming. The ramifications of this has both players and coaches worried.

Nutan Kumar Goel, plays U-16 cricket for Al Barkaat Malik Muhammad Islam English School in Kurla, and will now have to compete in U-19 next year
Nutan Kumar Goel, plays U-16 cricket for Al Barkaat Malik Muhammad Islam English School in Kurla, and will now have to compete in U-19 next year

Leslie Machado, football veteran and coach of Don Bosco High School, says there's only so much that can be taught and practised virtually when it comes to sport. "The boys had been eagerly looking forward to playing the MSSA [Mumbai Schools Sports Association] and [DSO] District Sports Office tournaments. Age is a big factor in sports, and if no tournaments happen this year, they'll end up losing a year. Let's say, somebody had a chance of winning the U-16 Nationals. In the light of the event not being held, the player will have to compete in U-18 next year and would have lost out on an opportunity." Nutan Kumar Goel, who plays cricket for the U-16 at Al Barkaat Malik Muhammad Islam English School in Kurla, is one such player. Next year, he'll have to compete in the U-19 team. "April is the most important month, where summer camp matches are held. The top 30 players have a chance of making it to the state level. But, I've made peace with the fact that I won't be able to compete in the U-16 category this year, and will have to up my game for U-19." To make sure he doesn't lose out, Goel has set up a net in his housing society where he practises with his father. Nafees Khan, Goel's cricket coach at the school, is now pinning his hopes on the two major upcoming inter-school cricket tournaments, Harris Shield and Giles Shield. "Harris Shield was started in 1897 and has never been dropped in all these years. I'm hoping that this year too, the authorities will hold the matches even if it means a shorter format with limited teams."

Hockey player Shyam Redekar, 17, does squats at his Currey Road home, where he finds space constraint a challenge. He says not having access to grounds over the last six months might affect his performance
Hockey player Shyam Redekar, 17, does squats at his Currey Road home, where he finds space constraint a challenge. He says not having access to grounds over the last six months might affect his performance

Last month, in a setback for many students, the Delhi University (DU) decided to restrict admissions based on sports quota. It said that the 2020 admission for undergraduate courses, based on extracurricular activity (ECA) and sports quota, will only be offered for National Cadet Corps (NCC) and National Service Scheme (NSS) due to the Coronavirus outbreak. Shyam Redekar, a state-level hockey player, who also plays football at the district level, got admission into Kandivli's Thakur College through the sports quota after appearing for the SSC exams in 2018. Now a Std 11 student of commerce, Redekar says he will be compelled to channelise all his energy into academics since there are no matches. "Usually, the points that you score through DSO matches help in securing admission to a good college. I haven't played any matches since March, and considering the way things are moving, I'm not sure there will be any this year." Redekar, who lives at Currey Road, receives fitness videos every day from a local club called Iron Born FC. "Due to space constraints at home, I'm unable to do all the exercises that they share, but I make it a point to do sit-ups, push-ups and leg strengthening exercises with ropes." Redekar's concern is that the long gap in training might set him back significantly once the matches resume. "As a hockey and football player, access to grounds is important. I will lose touch with the basics if I don't practise every day; it's like starting all over again," says Redekar, who was playing for Tata Power FC before the pandemic.

Satish Uchil, general secretary of Maharashtra Athletics Association
Satish Uchil, general secretary of Maharashtra Athletics Association

It's for the same reason that Satish Uchil, general secretary and spokesperson of Maharashtra Athletics Association (MAA), is concerned about the performance of athletes. Most running tracks in the state, such as the one in Balewadi, on the outskirts of Pune, haven't been opened yet, and there are hardly any synthetic running tracks to speak of, he tells us. "So, the athletes haven't received any training since the lockdown." In pre-COVID times, the athletic season would start in February-March, but couldn't this time. In April, the Athletic Federation of India (AFI) had issued a revised calendar with Patiala's National Institute of Sports, that the season's first competition would be held in the second week of September. But, AFI president Adille Sumariwalla revealed that September events will be rescheduled because of travel restrictions and quarantine norms. Uchil says they are now looking at resuming matches for junior players, November onward. "Abroad, athletics has re-started in a big way. In fact, former world champion Johannes Vetter launched the second best javelin throw in history of 97.76 metres at Skolimowska Memorial, a World Athletics Continental Tour Gold meeting in Silesia, Poland," says Uchil. Nairobi is preparing to host the first World Athletics Continental Tour Meeting. The
meet, named the Kip Keino Classic after distance legend Kipchoge Keino, was initially scheduled for May but was moved twice to its current date of October 3. "Cricket, NBA and Formula 1 have bubbles and mini-bubbles for all players and venues. But, I don't know if that's possible for athletics and football. A state-level competition for men and women—we're not including juniors—will see at least 800 participants from 34 districts. There's a huge risk in assembling so many people in one place like Mumbai," he adds. The bio-bubble is the new pandemic-era protocol in which the arena is sealed off to the outside world. Players and the coaching and support staff are tested for COVID-19 before entering the bubble. They are quarantined there, and allowed access to only the venue and their respective hotels, and are not allowed to interact with people outside the bubble. "Although we're looking at starting athletic meets around November-December, the players may not be fit enough to run. Ideally, they should be at their peak by that time, but I don't know how that will be possible."

Uday Pawar
Uday Pawar

Uday Pawar runs an eponymous badminton academy at the Goregaon Sports Club. Over the past six months, Pawar has been in touch with his students to keep them motivated. "The situation is unprecedented, and it's hard for students and coaches. But, it's going to come down to the survival of the fittest. Those who keep themselves physically and mentally fit, will be able to see through this time," says Pawar, who trains city shuttler Chirag Shetty, ranked number 10 globally. The Thomas and Uber Cups, a highlight of the season, have been moved to later in the year. In Chennai, badminton and tennis courts have reopened after the Tamil Nadu government announced relaxations in the COVID-19 lockdown. "While I understand that it's difficult to socially distance in contact sports like football and hockey, badminton can be allowed. The length of the court is 44 feet, so you're never within six feet of each other."

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First Published: 13 September, 2020 06:52 IST

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