Accidental hockey player to Olympic medalist Vivek Sagar Prasad now aims for Junior World Cup glory
It was only by chance that the prodigious talent of India, Vivek Sagar Prasad, was introduced to hockey.
“He played a little cricket,” says his older brother Vidya Sagar, “and a little badminton.” At home, the two brothers were obsessed with chess, a passion they still share today.
One evening, the priorities shifted. “There was a field next to the munitions factory near our house in Itarsi. It was mainly used for playing cricket, but a few people who worked at the factory used a small area for hockey, ”explains Vidya Sagar.
Prasad hit the ground one night to play cricket, but the hockey team was missing a player. “So they told him to take a stick and defend himself,” Vidya Sagar adds. “That’s how it started. Theek-thaak he hogaya sab uske baad se (he has been doing well since). ”
“Theek-thaak” is a very sweet way to describe Prasad’s flourishing career.
At just 21, the second youngest male player to ever represent India has already racked up nearly 75 international matches, scored more than a dozen goals, led India to a silver medal at the Olympic Games in youth, won a bronze medal at the Olympics, where he was one of the standout artists, twice nominated as the rising star of the International Hockey Federation and are considered by many to be the future captain of the ‘National team.
Before that happens, however, the center-half will have to help the Indian Under-21 team, of which he is captain, overcome a very difficult Belgian side in the quarter-finals of the Junior World Cup on Wednesday. The kind of scene, according to former Hockey India high performance director David John, where Prasad will thrive.
“The occasion never bothered him,” says John. “The bigger the opportunity, the more he plays. He does not turn in on himself. He actually wants to be the one to prove to others that he is important, that he could perform (skills) under pressure.
Jean knows. In 2018, then Australian and Indian coach Sjoerd Marijne took a leap of faith and selected a 17-year-old rookie for the New Zealand tour – 17 years, 10 months and 22 days, to be exact. This made Prasad the second youngest player to ever play for India, behind the player who eventually gave way to him, former captain Sardar Singh, at just 11 days old.
From Marijne to John to former junior team coach Jude Felix, everyone has raved about Prasad’s qualities – his quick decision-making, his ability to take the toughest of opponents off on the wrong foot. and physically stronger, continuous movement in midfield, the ability to score goals, quick hands, and leadership abilities.
In New Zealand, his first tour, the shortest man on the pitch established himself as the team’s best player.
Shane McLeod – the best coach of the past decade, having led Belgium to Olympic silver and gold, and a World Cup title in between – joined John and Marijne after India’s match against the European giants. “Who is this boy?” McLeod asked, according to John. “He’s exceptional.”
The skills of the creative and attacking midfielder are now mesmerizing the world. But at home Prasad, the youngest son’s hockey exploits were kept a secret from the father, an elementary school teacher who wanted his kids to focus on studying.
Prasad was only seven years old when he was asked to replace the Defender with the group playing on the field next to the Itarsi Ammunition Factory. In an instant, however, he was hit and started playing with them regularly, later becoming part of the home team who traveled to the area to play matches.
“The financial situation of the family was not very good, so our father was dead against any sporting activity. His goal was to make sure that we finish our studies and get a good job. Once, he even slapped Vivek for playing hockey, ”laughs Vidya Sagar, an engineer. “But since I was the older of the two, he was more focused on what I was doing. So Vivek continued to play without our father knowing.
Prasad traveled on buses without tickets, borrowed hockey sticks, and wore his brother’s shoes to make sure the family weren’t overwhelmed by his indulgence. His mother kept the back door of the house open so that he could go in and out without his father knowing. No one in the family, however, imagined this was anything serious.
“One day the coach of the local team he was playing for came to our house to ask our parents for permission to take Vivek to a tournament outside of Bhopal,” said Vidya Sagar. “My father categorically refused. After much persuasion, he relented, but only when I pointed out to him that the family wouldn’t even have to spend a dime since all the expenses would be taken care of.
So a young Prasad traveled to Akola to play against men twice as tall and older. He didn’t mind that the surface was rough and laden with pebbles. With his skill and anticipation, ball skills and body feints, Prasad glided across the grass field as if no one existed.
At the end of a match, Ashok Kumar, the former captain of India and son of the legendary Dhyan Chand, met Prasad near the team’s canoe and asked him, “Bade level by kheloge? “
In the years that followed, Prasad surpassed the level even his mentor had imagined. “But to get this far, he struggled a lot,” says Vidya Sagar. “Bohot ganda waala fight. “
In November 2016, Prasad was fighting for his life after a collarbone injury led to serious complications. “It was so bad that before the operation, the doctors got a signed pledge from my father which basically implied that if things got complicated he might even die,” Vidya Sagar said. “Fortunately, it went well. But for 7-8 days after the operation, he couldn’t eat a bite. Those days were a nightmare. But throughout this phase, Vivek always smiled, never gave up hope.
It made a comeback in mid-2017. And then, after a remarkable ascent, there was an even more remarkable drop in form. At the 2018 Commonwealth Games, Prasad was no more than a shadow of himself; so poor that he was immediately excluded from the national team.
Vidya Sagar says the comparisons to Sardar started playing in the mind of the teenager at the time, and the pressure of expectations placed on him also hit him, leading to a crisis of confidence.
The crisis lasted almost a year, a period that saw him go back to basics. Prasad returned to the junior squad, leading them to a podium at the 2018 Youth Olympic Games and the Sultan of Johor Cup in 2019. A series of consistent performances paved the way for his return to the senior squad, of which Prasad is now an integral member.
“He’s in a really good headspace now,” said Vidya Sagar. “He was home after the Olympics for a while, cooled off after a long season, we played chess a lot and now he’s back on the pitch.” Where the pieces are in place to make it big.
Now it is Prasad’s turn.