Lalit Upadhyay confident of Indian hockey’s podium finish at Tokyo Olympics
The forward wants to emulate his hero, the late hockey great Mohammed Shahid, by helping eight-time Olympic champions India win a medal after four decades
Mention Olympics and it conjures up images of the Indian men’s hockey team in its pomp, winning a series of medals, mostly gold. The country’s team lost its grip on the global game in the 1970s, with the only exception provided by victory at the 1980 Moscow Games.
The late forward Mohammad Shahid was a shining light in that team of 40 years ago, India’s 4-3 win over Spain in the find still reminding millions in the country of those glory days.
Lalit Upadhyay, key member of the young frontline spearheading the current team’s bid at the Tokyo Olympics (July 23-August 8) to end a four-decade medal drought, was born only 13 years after the Moscow high. The 27–year-old wants to savour the moments Shahid and his teammates did long ago.
Like Shahid, Upadhyay too hails from Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh. Upadhyay too started his career in tough circumstances. After achieving some success at junior level, his career was almost derailed following a TV sting in 2008. He stayed away from the game for a few months before gradually coming back into India reckoning. He is now considered a “game-changer” in the side.
“Those were tough days; I was framed in that incident. I kept mum for a few months, but remained focused on my target. I was on the verge of quitting the sport but my family was my support system. They said “if you leave, people will think you did wrong”,” he said.
Upadhyay now wants to follow in the footsteps of Shahid, one of the “hockey magicians” of India. “Varanasi ke ek bête Shahid ne tab kiya tha, aur wahi kaam ab main karna chahta hoon (What Shahid, the son of Varanasi, did for India then, I want to do now),” said Upadhyay.
Indian hockey has gone through ups and downs over the years. The form of the current team against top opponents has raised hopes of a podium finish in Tokyo, where India won gold in the 1964 Games. “We are on target for a podium finish; nothing less than a gold medal is acceptable. The team has been in good form and has the ability to finish on top,” said Upadhyay.
He took up hockey as a 11-year-old in 2004, at Varanasi’s Udai Pratap College, after watching his elder brother play the most popular game in his school. Still, it took him a while to warm up to it.
“In the beginning, hockey was just a tool to get a good job, but as time passed, it became a passion. I always tried to learn from mistakes, it made me strong mentally.”
Then Sports Authority of India coach, Parmanand Mishra, who taught Upadhyay his early hockey lessons at UP College, said: “I would slap him almost daily to make corrections in his hitting. I remember how he worked hard and gained command over his hitting. That batch of 14-15 players was the best in my career at UP College.”
Mishra said the TV sting was a bid to tarnish Upadhyay’s rising career, while he was in the India U-21 team. “Some people didn’t want Lalit to play for the seniors, so they hatched a conspiracy against him.”
Journalists from a TV channel reportedly posing as agents offered the then federation secretary a sponsorship deal if a player from Uttar Pradesh was selected in the national team. When the official asked who the player was, they mentioned Lalit Upadhyay’s name.
The federation secretary was removed from his post but Upadhyay faced accusations of trying to buy his way into the team. This discouraged selectors from considering him. Upadhyay continued to train at the UP College and things changed dramatically after he got a call from former India hockey captain Dhanraj Pillay.
“He was very impressed with my game and offered a contract to play for Air India. It was dream come true and I moved ahead. It changed my life. I was voted ‘Rookie of the Year’ at World Series Hockey in 2012.”
There was no looking back as Upadhyay made his senior India debut in 2014. He played in the World Cup that year. Since then, he has helped India win the 2016 and 2018 Asian Champions Trophy titles and the 2017 Asia Cup. He was also part of the bronze-winning side at the 2018 Jakarta Asian Games.
“When I look back on my career, I thank God and people around me for how everyone helped me reach this stage,” said Upadhyay, considered an asset for his ability to play in any position across the frontline to fit into Australian coach Graham Reid’s style of attacking play.
Last year, Indian made their FIH Pro League debut with a double win over third-ranked Netherlands, and Upadhyay was the main focus. He scored two goals across the games and constantly harassed the Dutch backline. He was adjudged ‘Man of the Match’ in the first game.
On India’s prospects at the Tokyo Olympics, Upadhyay said they were no more “underdogs” and consistent showing against the world’s top teams in the past few months underlined their confidence.
“We are neck and neck with the top four teams in the world—Belgium, Holland, Australia and Germany. Our success against teams like Holland is a good indication that the team is well prepared for Tokyo.”
Bonding among players was the biggest factor in the team’s success, he said. “It’s the latest guru mantra of the coach—stay positive and always do positive communication.”