Amir Khan: Talented striker

Nimble on his feet and quick to stop and turn against defenders, Amir Khan’s dodges upfront have been impressive so far in the tournament.

"I need to work on my consistency," says Amir.   -  Special Arrangement

Coming into national reckoning just a week before a major international competition as a replacement for one of your best friends is never easy. But Mohd. Amir Khan knows an opportunity when he sees one. 

At the ongoing Hockey World League Finals here, the youngster from Allahabad has grabbed it with both hands. Named as replacement for State-mate and friend Lalit Upadhyay after the latter got injured, Amir has impressed everyone with his runs, dodges and feints to wrong-foot the opposition defenders. He may not have scored yet but the lanky forward knows there are more ways to contribute to a team’s performance.

On Friday, while several of the India players preferred to either sleep off the strain of the tournament so far or relax with the occasional cheat-eat and their favourite cups of coffee, Amir and Mujtaba were busy with their afternoon prayers. Walking in to find coach Roelant Oltmans waiting for lunch, Amir tried to explain his absence. “That’s absolutely fine, as long as you are in time for whatever is the team’s schedule,” the Dutchman waved him off.

Starting at the age of 10 at the Majidia Islamia College grounds in Allahabad, hockey has always been a way of life for Amir. “In my area, a lot of people play hockey. In fact, the grounds have more kids with sticks than those with bats. A lot of my relatives also played, though not at big levels. My cousin Ayaz Ahmed used to play for Customs and it was normal for me to play the game,” he explains. A product of the Lucknow SAI hostel, two of his younger brothers are now following in his footsteps.

The frail-looking youngster is the latest in a long line of illustrious predecessors from Uttar Pradesh that began from Dhyan Chand and continued through Ashok Kumar, Mohd. Shahid and RP Singh, players who mixed attitude, skill and style to produce what was considered the traditional Indian hockey. His looks, though, are deceptive.

Nimble on his feet and quick to stop and turn against defenders, Amir Khan’s dodges upfront have been impressive so far in the tournament. Regardless of the opposition, the youngster held on to his style of aggression. Most experts of the game consider him among the most talented strikers in the next generation.

Style aur dash hona hi chahiye, dikhna bhi chahiye jab zarurat ho (style and dash must be there and must also be visible when the situation demands). Planning is important but so is individuality. Even the coach accepts that there are times when plans do not work, and an individual has to use his mind and skill and decide on his own.

“Yes, there are times when it doesn’t work, like it happened a couple of times against Britain also, but that will get better with experience,” Amir says with conviction.

New stage, old mates

Even though this is his first major senior tournament, Amir isn’t exactly unfamiliar with his team-mates. Having played with the likes of VR Raghunath, Danish Mujtaba, Talwinder Singh, Ramandeep Singh and Birendra Lakra for India at the junior level, the 21-year old — he will turn 22 later this month — is among known faces here. Mujtaba, in fact, belongs to the same area and the two grew up playing together from childhood even though the senior pro is five year older. Unsurprisingly, there is a higher comfort level. 

For someone only starting out, Amir is grounded with a lot of quiet self-belief. “Pressure is always there but if you remember your good times and performances, it helps a lot. Pressure doesn’t mean you succumb to it — you have to face and beat it, you need to look inside you. Everyone knows what he is capable of, what he can do and what his talent is.

“Pressure is always there. Specially, when you haven't played any big tournament and suddenly you are in such a big event but the good thing is I believe I haven’t let it overpower me. I think I have been able to handle it a little better and so maybe I am going in the right direction. Now I need to work on my consistency,” he says.

“Before a match, I only focus on the match and try to avoid the negativity. I pray a lot but if something does happen that affects me —  which doesn’t happen too often, to be honest — I just speak to my parents and solve it with their advice. I do not like to talk much to everyone,” he adds.

Is he now targetting a Rio spot? “Preferences don’t matter, performances do. I am not thinking of it now, I am thinking of the next two games. Everything depends on my performance. I would love to be at Rio and have both Danish and Lalit with me but coaches only see what you do on field,” he signs off, heading for lunch.