He's a quick learner

Hero's welcome… Yuvraj Walmiki (holding the National flag aloft) gets a rousing reception at his home in Marine Lines, Mumbai.-VIVEK BENDRE Hero's welcome… Yuvraj Walmiki (holding the National flag aloft) gets a rousing reception at his home in Marine Lines, Mumbai.

Yuvraj Walmiki impressed one and all in his first major tournament with the seniors. The youngster carries a lot of promise following his performance in the Asian Champions Trophy, where India emerged champion. Over to Nandakumar Marar.

Yuvraj Walmiki earned a place in the Indian hockey team by doing what the coach, Michael Nobbs, wanted him to do during the preparation for the Asian Champions Trophy. His confidence in one-on-one situations when on the attack, powerful hitting and opportunism earned him a place in the Indian forward line.

In the past, foreign coaches entrusted with the job of rebuilding Indian hockey have been known to back the newcomers all the way once they spot the spark in them. Nobbs is no different. He has reposed complete faith in the young forward.

Yuvraj, 21, impressed one and all in his first major tournament with the seniors. India emerged winner in the Asian Champions Trophy in Ordos, China, recently.

Clarence Lobo, a member of Nobbs' support staff, provided an insight into the chief coach's line of thought.

“Nobbs wants his players to show confidence in beating their opponents — the way the Australians do it. He wants his players to attack all the time, so confidence in one-on-one situations is useful,” he said while explaining the reason behind Yuvraj's brilliant performance in Ordos that caught Nobbs' eye.

“Yuvraj showed the ability to beat his man (marker) and played from the start against South Korea. The coach preferred forwards who were capable of matching the pace of the Koreans and lasting the entire game. The support staff were confident that the youngsters could do the job,” Lobo said.

Lobo has watched Yuvraj since he was a kid, finding his feet in club hockey. He kept track of the lad during junior tournaments and drafted him into the Indian development squad for the 2009 SAF Games when he was 19 years old.

“Mumbai boys are used to doing many things at one time. Foreign coaches prefer players who do what they have been asked to do and are also quick learners. Yuvraj was one such player. He is clever enough to go in, finish his work with minimum fuss and get out. The coaching staff were happy with his response against the speedy Koreans,” Lobo observed.

“Yuvraj is a strong hitter; he is a strong player when on the attack. Since the time he played club hockey with Bombay Republicans, he is used to taking charge. He continued to show the same attitude during the camp and in tournaments. Nobbs was initially worried about his physique, but once I explained Yuvraj's background, the chief coach wanted to keep him in the camp for a longer duration for systematic training,” said Lobo.

A star in the making? Yuvraj Walmiki with his mentor Dhanraj Pillay, who in his active days, was one of India's greatest forwards.-PTI

Yuvraj came up the hard way, starting with early hockey lessons on the concrete courts behind the Mumbai Hockey Association (MHA) turf. Yuvraj, then only nine, trained with other kids at the Bombay Republicans club under the watchful eyes of co-founder Merzban Patel, for whom spotting talent and guiding them along is a passion.

“During the Bombay Gold Cup, the turf would be open to the junior players after the day's schedule of matches was completed. It was then that Yuvraj attracted the attention of coaches sitting in the MHA stands. Thereafter, he grabbed the chances that came his way,” said Patel.

Yuvraj's father is a private driver, while his mother is a housewife struggling to make ends meet. His brother Devendra is another promising hockey prospect who has been fortunate to get early exposure at Bombay Republicans. The Walmiki family lives in a shed-like structure at Marine Lines, close to the MHA stadium in south Mumbai. Surprisingly, the family lived without electricity for years before media attention on Yuvraj, following his achievement in the Asian Champions Trophy, produced dramatic results. BEST, the electricity supply company, provided a connection without the Walmikis even applying for it!

According to Patel, Yuvraj excelled in school hockey for Our Lady of Dolours and in the Mumbai League. “Claude de Sales from Bank of India took him on stipend. It was the first break after impressive performances for his school. Former Republican players helped him with playing kit. When he was 17, Air-India officials Vernon Lobo and Peter Saldanha drafted him as a promising talent,” he said. “Yuvraj has been coached by Joaquim Carvalho, Gavin Ferreira and Dhanraj Pillay at various stages of his career.”

Talking of Yuvraj, Dhanraj said, “He picks up fast. He is aware of the game's various aspects. Being a Mumbai player he has watched many stars. Coaches should know how to get the best out of this sensitive lad. Criticism over petty issues frustrates him, like being ticked off for not greeting the coach. I try to pass on the finer points of the game to him since he joined Air-India on scholarship. This way I have developed my understanding with younger players like Yuvraj. I coach them on the importance of off-the-ball running, eye contact etc.”

Dhananjay Mahadik, who represented India in the World Cup, recommended Yuvraj for the Bundesliga club, TG Frankenthal, in Germany. “Mahadik had played for the German club, so Yuvraj was signed on short-term contracts over two seasons. The first time he went as an apprentice, then again as one of foreign professionals,” said Patel.

Yuvraj was overwhelmed by the reception he received at the Mumbai airport on arrival from Ordos. Former India star and a senior at Air-India, Dhanraj greeted him along with family members and former India coach M. R. Negi. Felicitations and cash awards too followed.

Yuvraj has, at last, seen the light at the end of the tunnel.