Nandanoori Mukesh Kumar was one of the finest field hockey midfielder of his times, and has represented India internationally for 16 years. A winner of Arjuna Award and Padma Shri, Mukesh has seen it all - from glory to disappointment, from rage to disillusionment. But the only thing that remains is his undying passion for the sport. At 45, his dedication towards bringing back the lost glory of India's national sport is unquestionable.
There was a time when India was the undisputed world champion in field hockey. Internationally, the most celebrated players of the sport were from India. With the passage of time, and with technology coming in, other countries got better at the sport and India fell behind.
Mukesh wants to bring back this lost glory, but has been facing huge difficulties in the process. Over the past 10 years, he has been trying to start a hockey academy in Hyderabad. "But honest attempts are not heeded immediately," Mukesh says, as he has painfully witnessed his countless applications die a slow death in the havoc created by India's complicated and alienated bureaucracy.
In a recent meeting with YourStory, Mukesh remembers some special moments of his sporting life and expresses his deep dissatisfaction towards the falling standards of our national sport.
Right from childhood, hockey was his life. Mukesh used to breathe the sport and had no other ambition but to master it.
Hockey was also the reason I was able to make a living. It is because of hockey, that I am a respected man today. I came up from a small town middle class family and was suddenly an international sensation. I have no one to thank but the sport.
Mukesh's family had a keen interest in sports. Both his elder and younger brothers played hockey. His family was known for its inclination towards the sport in the Sikh village in Secunderabad. Hockey became his favourite sport right from his childhood. Although he played gilli danda, kancha and other games as well, soon, hockey as an interest took over. His school and college also encouraged the sport, and soon Mukesh had become the most popular hockey player in his town.
During his intermediate education, Mukesh got a chance to join a camp for the junior national team. Passionate about the sport, he immediately left his studies and joined the camp. He soon became the first person from his town to be part of the Indian junior hockey team.
During his time with the junior team, Mukesh set many records which remain a challenge for many accomplished players even today, but what he dearly recalls is a goal against Pakistan, which he considers the most special goal of his career.
It was the junior world cup match between India and Pakistan, and as expected, things heated up. The dignity of players from both teams were at stake. The match lived up to the hype. For most part of the match, our scores remained equal. And then I got a chance, dived into it, and scored. We won the match.
The audience fell in love with Mukesh. The selectors and senior players, who had come to witness the contest, were impressed by his talents. It was this goal that got him a place in the senior team.
It was 1992. At a time when Hockey was paramount and contenders were countless, getting a chance to play for the national team was a huge accomplishment. Mukesh was only 22 when he joined the senior team. It was the same year that he participated in the Barcelona Olympics. Over the next 16 years, he played over 300 matches representing India in field hockey. He represented India in the Atlanta (1996) and Sydney (2000) Olympics, and participated in two World Cups and two Asian Games. He also went on to become the captain of the Indian hockey team.
For his contribution towards the sport, Mukesh received the Arjuna Award in 1995, and Padma Shri in 2002.
My daughter used to visit a temple and pray that I get the Padma Shri. My family was expecting that I will receive it in 2001, but I didn't. In 2002, when I received a telegram that I have been given the prestigious award, I was on cloud nine. I was so excited, that if someone had taken me to a ground on that day, I would have scored several goals against the opponent (laughs). My daughter continued to pray that I get the Padma Shri. It had become a habit for her. We had to explain to the kid that I have already received the award and her prayers have been answered.
The excitement of getting the Padma Shri was soon gone. He says with a heavy heart that none of the awards he received led to any benefit for him or the sport. After retiring from the international career, he wanted to start a hockey academy in Hyderabad to help new players come up, but no one offered any help. He sold his house to raise money for the academy, but till date, his dream of starting the hockey academy remains unfulfilled.
This delay took a toll on my mental health as I became a short tempered person. This led to quarrels between me and my loved ones in the family. But, thanks to their support, I was able to recover soon.
His flare to start the academy and help rejuvenate the sport lives on. He believes that he'll be successful in helping many more players to come up and become part of the national team. Disappointed by the falling standards of the sport, he does not hesitate to blame the politicians and bureaucrats for interfering with the hockey federations and associations of India.
There are a few powerful people at the top who have made their chairs in these bodies permanent. They have been holding important positions in hockey federations and associations for years now. They don't understand the needs and conditions of our players, nor are they interested in the betterment of the sport. Their only interest is to hold their position of power for personal benefit and let their children inherit their chair even after they are long gone. Bureaucrats cannot manage hockey in India. Today, most federations are run by these people, while our players struggle to get even the smallest of tasks done.
Mukesh believes that those who are not aware of the sport should stay away from it. Experienced, talented and trustworthy ex-players should come together and work towards the betterment of the sport. Rules and guidelines concerning sports should also be made by ex-sportspersons, and bureaucrats should be involved in their implementation only. Mukesh claims that many ex-players like him are willing to help the current state of Indian hockey but are not receiving any support. He takes the example of Pargat Singh.
There is no better defender in the world than Pargat Singh. He knows more ways to stop a progressing ball than anyone else. His talent is getting wasted as it is not getting passed on to the future generation. But there is no one willing to listen to him.
He also takes the example of Mohammad Shahid and Dhanraj Pillay who are willing to contribute, but since no one cares , the inertia is too high to conquer. He does not hesitate in criticising the foreign coaches too.
While our management fails to identify talent and experience in the ex-players of its own country, they bring in inexperienced foreign coaches who are not skilled enough to understand the strengths and talents of our players. They are willing to pay millions to the foreign coaches but expect Indian coaches to contribute free.
With a heavy heart, Mukesh tells us how many ex-players, who should be rather training young talent, are today either staying home or struggling in offices. They who understand the intricacies of the sport and should be on their toes are learning computers and searching for office jobs. He jokingly tells us that Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, the Olympic Silver medalist is today Information and Broadcasting minister, while India's sports minister hasn't played any professional sport all his life.
Displeased with Hockey India too, Mukesh says that it is primarily a show-off and formality in the name of work. He takes the example of the committee for Performance and Development of Hockey India, meant to help the sport grow at the ground level, which has not had a single meeting till date. This committee consisting of Olympians, international players and coaches must play a greater role to bring out talent from every nook and corner of India, he urges.
Hockey as a sport has changed. From a display of skill and talent, it has transformed into a display of strength. India has a lot of talent in hockey but it is not being recognized. In cases where it is being recognized, the necessary effort needed to help them grow is not being put.
Mukesh fears that if corrective measures are not taken, hockey will go further away from us. The little craze for the sport left among Indian players will be lost soon, if we don't rise up to the situation.
Nidhi nods. Mukesh's wife and an ex-international women hockey player herself, she has represented India on countless occasions too. The two international hockey maestros are training their daughter in badminton and not hockey. This - in a way - speaks of the state of India's national sport and the disillusionment the two have gone through.