How a near-death accident and an unconventional coach, a Hindi teacher, shaped hockey forward Abhishek’s career

Written by Mihir Vasavda
| Mumbai |

Updated: July 17, 2022 8:54:47 am

Abhishek is a strong receiver and an artful dribbler with an eye for goal. (Hockey India)

The story involves a blackberry tree, a ‘Masterji’, and Messi.

Abhishek thought he was having some harmless fun, like most kids his age, when he scaled the seven-foot wall that separated the hockey ground and the sub-divisional magistrate’s residence and climbed up the tree to fetch some blackberries.

It was a ‘perfectly thought-out plan’, Abhishek laughs – the SDM would not be home and ‘masterji’, their Hindi teacher who was also the hockey coach, wasn’t supposed to be back for a couple of hours at least. “So before we began our practice, we thought let’s have some blackberries.”

It took one shriek for things to go south. One of the boys, standing below the tree, yelled ‘aagaye’ – he’s here. Abhishek panicked. He jumped from the tree, not realising the wall had broken glass and barbed wire fencing. “As I jumped, my left hand got stuck in the fence. The nerve got cut and the bleeding wouldn’t stop,” Abhishek, who goes by just the first name, recalls. “I was rushed to a hospital nearby.”

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It took an operation, 15 stitches and a week in the ICU to fix a couple of nerves that got severely damaged. “Paanch minute late aur khatam tha mein. Mar jaata wahan,” the India forward, set to make his maiden Commonwealth Games appearance, says. “This is my second shot at life.”

Ten years ago, Abhishesk suffered an injury and was in the ICU for two weeks. (Hockey India)

Player in Shahbaz mould

It’s been 10 years since the accident, which Abhishek, described by his coach as a player in the mould of Pakistan great Shahbaz Ahmad, calls the ‘turning point’ of his life. Until then, he was a happy-go-lucky young man, never far away from mischief and someone who did things not because he wanted to, but because his friends did them.

That’s how the younger of the two sons of an Army man started playing hockey in the first place – following his friend to a ground near his home in Sonepat, the Haryana district growing in reputation for producing top-level international players. And that’s how the now 22-year-old, against his parents’ wishes, left a strict, reputed public school to join an institution that did not have a great disciplinary record but had a decent hockey structure, which was overseen not by a qualified coach but a Hindi teacher, Shamsher Singh.

“I gave his parents my word that Abhishek would be under my strict observation for 24 hours,” says Shamsher, Abhishek’s childhood hockey coach. “Ultimately, only on my say-so, they agreed.”

It was a big leap of faith. Shamsher, after all, had never even touched a hockey stick before he was thrust upon the responsibility to teach the sport. Since 1988, he had been the hostel guardian and a Hindi teacher of the school that had produced several hockey players, including former India international Rajesh Chauhan. But around 2006, the government scheme which kept the hockey activities at the school going was discontinued and soon after, the coaches moved on.

Abhishek started playing hockey to a ground near his home in Sonepat. (Hockey India)

A player exodus followed and the school authorities feared they would not be able to hold on to the ground. “Since I used to run a bit and play a little volleyball, it was suggested that I should oversee hockey training,” Shamsher says. “It didn’t make sense and I protested, saying I did not have any coaching skills or hockey experience. But they just told me to reach the hockey ground at 4.30-5 am and spend a couple of hours.”

Masterji and Messi

Shamsher was mocked and ridiculed by the senior players. “’What will a Hindi teacher do on a hockey field’, they asked. They called me masterji, not coach.”

It did not bother him for long. ‘Masterji’ developed his own unconventional coaching methods to train the players – cross-country runs and swimming at canals during the freezing January mornings, and the hostel libraries would be stacked with sports magazines, where players would be urged to read about Shamsher’s favourite player, Lionel Messi.

“Masterji liked Messi, so he made us read and watch a lot of his videos. In fact, that’s also one of the reasons he made me a striker,” says Abhishek, who was taught the basic skills by the senior players who trained at the academy apart from Shamsher himself. “He told us to read so we could articulate our thoughts. And he advised us to watch so we could learn and replicate the moves.”

Abhishek celebrates a goal with Nilakanta Singh. (Hockey India)

Abhishek and Shamsher talk about his Messi-style body feints and dribbles as a teenager, while setting the hockey fields across Haryana and Punjab on fire. This one time at a tournament in Rai, Shamsher says, Abhishek carried the ball alone for around 15 yards, weaving past defenders as if they did not exist. After beating the last defender, he was one-on-one with the goalkeeper but instead of shooting directly, Abhishek chose to have a little more fun.

“He dragged the goalkeeper to the left, changed his direction to make sure the keeper was flat on his back, then rounded him off and walked with the ball towards the goal,” Shamsher says.

Occasionally, Shamsher’s lack of hockey experience worked for players – the Hindi teacher says his wards aren’t ‘over-coached’, in that, they were often urged to follow their instincts and make their own decisions rather than depending on the coach for advice all the time.

Strong receiver, artful dribbler

It’s a trait that stands out in Abhishek, going by the early evidence. The goal he scored against the Netherlands in the Pro League last month is a case in point.

Forward Abhishek in action. (Hockey India)

Twenty-two seconds into the match, Abhishek received a pass from Gurjant Singh near the 23-yard line on the right, looked up to find two orange shirts in front of him, smartly lifted the ball over their sticks and after noticing that his teammates were all closely marked, took a shot at goal himself to surprise the Dutch goalkeeper at his near post.

The move and the goal explained the hype around Abhishek – strong receiver, artful dribbler, and calm inside the box. For an Indian team that is brimming with quality penalty corner options, Abhishek can potentially be an outlet for not just scoring field goals, but also assisting the forwards.

“He plays like Shahbaz,” Shamsher says. “He has a great dodge and uses body feints very smartly. It comes naturally to him. For as long as I remember, he’s played like this.”

For more than a decade, Shamsher has trained Abhishek. He was 11 when he walked to the ground and Abhishek’s batch, Shamsher says, marked the turnaround for the academy. Within five years of the Hindi teacher taking charge, the school’s hockey team began to dominate state meets and reached the finals of the sub-junior and junior national tournaments. More than 100 children took admission at the school because of its hockey team, Shamsher says, and in addition to the ground they already had – and feared losing – they had to develop another one next to it.

Abhishek celebrates a goal with his teammates. (Hockey India)

“Abhishek and a couple of other boys in the group were very dedicated and talented. We went to the famous Surjit Singh Academy with the best coaches, great turf, and a budget of Rs 350 per player for nutrition. Yet, we defeated them 4-2. So, I knew some of these boys would make it but I did not imagine they’d go as far as representing India,” Shamsher says.

Abhishek was picked for Delhi’s National Hockey Academy in 2016 and soon after, he was chosen for the junior national team. But his career seemed to have hit a roadblock when he was dropped in 2018.

For three years, the promising young player turned into just another face in the crowd. “Everyone around me said I was done. I was advised to get a job and focus on that. But just then, I got a stint with Punjab National Bank,” Abhishek says. “It’s a big domestic team; they train every day and compete in many domestic tournaments. They provided a perfect platform for me to return.”

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Abhishek’s goal-scoring spree at the national championships last year got the senior team management’s attention. And after making his international debut earlier this year, he’s grown into a reliable forward.

These are still early days for him with the national team and the CWG will further test his credentials. Abhishek, whose career seemed done six months ago, knows he’s got a second chance, like in his life. “And I do not intend to let it go waste.”

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