Packing a punch against Pakistan

Mukesh Kumar with the Man of the Match trophy after the Azlan Shah final in 1995. He had a great time in the 1991 event, too, scoring the only goal against Pakistan to give India the title.-PICS: THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

When I look back at my long career, there have been moments of ecstasy and agony, having figured in three Olympics, two World Cups and two Asian Games besides several invitation events across the world.

At the dusty Gymkhana Ground in Secunderabad when I was training in the mid-80s under the watchful guidance of Abharanam Sir, one of the best coaches I have ever come across in my career, I did not even dare to dream that I would be playing in the Olympics one day.

So, when I look back at my long career, there have been moments of ecstasy and agony, having figured in three Olympics, two World Cups and two Asian Games besides several invitation events across the world.

But, one moment which stands fresh in my memory even now is the match-winning goal I scored against Pakistan in the Junior World Cup pool match in Delhi in 1988. This effort pushed me to the forefront of Indian hockey as suddenly, people who mattered started looking at me as one of the better prospects.

The reason why I mention that goal against Pakistan is that it happened to be the only goal that evening. It was a long cross from the left and I saw the goalkeeper rushing forward. In a split second, I made a diving effort to snatch the ‘common ball’ to score the goal. There was terrific excitement all round and the tension was too palpable to be brushed aside. And, giving vent to their expectations, everyone present at the venue lustily cheered. Given the circumstances, I still feel that one goal was one of the best moments in my life — for it gave me recognition at a crucial phase of my career.

Somehow, my penchant for match-winning efforts against Pakistan continued for quite some time. For, in 1991, in the Azlan Shah Trophy final, I scored the only goal to give our team the title. I remember coach Balkishen Singh telling me during the semi-final that I would be scoring the match-winner against Pakistan.

Call it prophecy or a great coincidence, it happened just the way he desired. I should specially thank two of my team-mates here. The inspirational presence of schemer Jude Felix, who gave a long ball to the waiting Atif Idris on the left-flank, and who in turn gave a wonderful through ball, which I picked up charging down from the right to the left-flank, has to be acknowledged. Once in control, I dribbled my way into the striking zone and caught the goalkeeper on the wrong foot to trigger off celebrations in our camp and in the stands as there were quite a few enthusiastic Indian fans.

Mukesh Kumar giving nightmares to Pakistan’s Md. Nadeem and Naveed Alam as Dhanraj Pillay watches in the SAF Games final, 1995. India won 5-2.-

It was all the more satisfying for me to score that match-winner as I had to play despite severe pain because of a shin injury. Yes, I took the field for I sensed a huge opportunity to prove myself in such a prestigious tournament. I was on cloud nine when my childhood hero, the great Pakistani Shahbaz Ahmed, walked across to congratulate me for the effort.

The other great moment on the field was when I combined so well with my friend Dhanraj Pillay in the 1995 SAF Games final against Pakistan in Chennai. I don’t remember any Indian team playing as brilliantly as on that evening. There was an unbridled zeal to win. Everyone was saying that nothing less than a victory would satisfy us. It was team spirit at its best. Sabu Varkey played a key role in the scheme of things. Well, Pillay in his element is one of the joys on a hockey field. I definitely enjoyed that great evening for we together scored five goals to outplay Pakistan (5-2) in front of a capacity crowd.

Like for any sportsperson, there have been moments of disgust and terrible disappointment for me also. For any athlete, the first Olympics is something to cherish. But, I shudder to think of that event even now. On the instructions of my captain Pargat Singh, I was given the chance for the push-ins in the short-corners. It was a challenge as well as a huge responsibility.

Apparently, being my first Olympics, I was really nervous and it was the reason for such a terrible showing — for I failed to push the ball to the hitter at least nine times. It’s a scenario which I hate to visualise even now. Immediately after the match, I knew I would be the butt of ridicule of the entire nation as the Games were live on Doordarshan. Not, the start I could ever imagine, even in my worst dreams!