When India take on France in the hockey men’s junior World Cup in Bhubaneswar on Wednesday evening, captain Vivek Sagar Prasad will realise a childhood dream. “There is a lot of excitement. I never had the opportunity of playing in 2016 as I had suffered an injury,” said the 21-year-old.
Prasad looked set to be selected for India’s 18-member squad—which eventually went on to become champions—for the World Cup in Lucknow. However, while playing a practice match at the Madhya Pradesh Hockey Academy in Bhopal, Prasad was injured following a collision with opposition defenders.
“When I saw him, I realised how severe the injury was. His collarbone had pierced through the flesh and was protruding out of the skin. You can imagine how hard he must have been hit,” said Ashok Kumar, son of legendary hockey player Dhyan Chand, who was then chief coach and technical advisor of the academy. “He was immediately taken to the hospital where we were told that he had multiple fractures and had to undergo surgery immediately.”
Life in danger
Matters got complicated as Prasad also suffered an injury to his abdomen and had fluids seeping into his lungs. “The doctors had said that the condition was life threatening,” said Kumar, who famously scored the winning goal in India’s only World Cup triumph in 1975.
After spending three days in the intensive care unit, Prasad started showing signs of recovery. With his health improving, the teen from Shivnagar Chandon village in Hoshangabad district of Madhya Pradesh realised the severity of his injury. Prasad fought depression on being told to give up the sport. “Doctors told my parents that there is very little chance of recovery,” he said.
But Prasad fought the demons in his mind, focused on rehabilitation and returned to the artificial turf only five months after the accident. In no time, he was back in the junior national setup and was selected to lead the team in the 2017 Sultan of Johor Cup where India returned with bronze. He also led India to silver at the 2018 Youth Olympics in Buenos Aires.
Prasad’s defence splitting passes, communication between the forward and back lines, quick feet movement and top notch performances were noticed by then India chief coach Sjoerd Marijne.
Two years after his life threatening injury, Prasad was part of the senior national team.
Spotted by Ashok Kumar
It was the same set of skills which Kumar had spotted in 2013 at a local tournament on grass in Akola, Maharastra. Invited as chief guest, Kumar saw this diminutive 13-year-old easily float past midfield and defence comprising players double his age.
“His skills, ball control, footing, wrong footing of opponents was apparent even on grass,” said Kumar, who asked Prasad if he’d like to play for his academy.
“I was shocked that such a big player was calling me to his academy,” said Prasad. “I could not believe it.”
Prasad rang Kumar up within a week to tell him, ‘Sir main aapke lie khelna chahta hu (I want to play for you)’. “That is how the journey began. He even stayed with me for a few months after arriving in Bhopal,” said Kumar.
Prasad made his senior India debut at the Invitational Four Nations Tournament in January 2018. At 17 years, 10 months and 22 days Prasad was the second youngest player for India, 11 days older than former captain Sandeep Singh when he debuted in Kuala Lumpur 2004.
Prasad’s consistent showing in the midfield helped India win silver in the 2018 Champions Trophy and bronze at the 2018 Asian Games. With him in the squad, India also claimed silver at the 2019 Sultan Azlan Shah Cup and won the FIH Series Finals later that year in Bhubaneswar with Prasad adjudged as the Best Young Player of the Tournament.
His exploits in 2019 earned Prasad the FIH Rising Star of the Year award, the first Indian to win it. He would win it again in 2020-21. Prasad’s career highlight of winning an Olympic medal in Tokyo got him promoted to Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) in Madhya Pradesh. He won the Arjuna award earlier this month.
Prasad, who now has 70 senior international caps, is the only player in the squad with an Olympic medal and idolises India skipper Manpreet Singh. Both are known for smart stick work, defence-splitting passes, being a livewire on the field and nucleus of the team.
“Whatever I have learnt from there, how Manpreet bhai handles the team and takes everyone along, I will try and implement it here. How he stresses on the importance of the bond and togetherness of the team,” he said.
“I have spoken to Vivek many times,” said Manpreet who led India to their first Olympic medal in 41 years at Tokyo. “I told him the main thing for them is to remain as a team. Winning and losing is part of the game. But when we lose, there is a tendency to point fingers. I told him that the team should not do that, and just focus on your game, and just stay as a team. And that will help you win every match.”
From the junior most member of the senior team to leading India at the Junior World Cup, it has been an incredible transition for Prasad. “It was incredible to win the Olympic bronze. I am really looking forward to use my exposure with the senior team to play my best hockey at the Junior World Cup,” said Prasad. “We are excited and looking forward to another podium finish.”