Hyderabad: The city of Nawabs has produced some of the greatest sports personalities. One of those is hockey player Mukesh Kumar. Born into a hockey family, his journey from the Junior World Cup to becoming a triple Olympian, an Arjuna awardee, and a Padma Shri is one that will surely inspire more children to play the sport.
In an exclusive interview with Newsmeter, he speaks about his Olympic experience, hockey career, and Hyderabad's future in hockey.
Tell us about your journey as a sportsperson?
A few colonies in Secunderabad depend on sports, for example, in Tirumalgherry it is football. I belong to Mudfort, a Sikh village. For the families there hockey is their game. Around 10 national players come from there. I grew up in a hockey family. My father was part of Jaali 11, a team that used to play during the time of the British. You can say it is in the genes or it is a family tradition. There was a large playground in front of my house. National players used to come there to play. I was motivated by seeing them. I used to practice day and night. I played in the U-12 tournament and the Allure Sitarama Raju tournament in Eluru. I was happy whenever I scored a goal and that is when I thought I will take up hockey as a career. At 12, someone told me if you play hockey you will get a job in the Railways or a bank. So I decided to make hockey the stepping stone towards getting a job. I did not want to be an international player. I just wanted to get a job. At 14, I got into the hostel in LB stadium after playing a rural tournament for the state. If you go to that hostel, you are guaranteed a job. In Machikipatnam, the hostel coach asked me if I wanted to come to the hostel. I didn’t know he was the coach. I joined the hostel without any selection process. My journey started there.
How did you feel when you wore the Indian jersey?
Many say its all about luck at the international level. But it is all because of hard work. Coach Abharanam sir gave me the right-wing position. A right-wing must have speed and good timing in 100 m. That is when you score. There was a guy from Kadapa, Chandrashekar. His speed was unmatchable. That is when my coach said, ‘You don't have the speed. Why don’t you go to the off-side?". I took his comments as a challenge and got up early morning at 4:30 a.m and started going to LB Stadium. There was a cricket pitch in the centre. I used to run there. I had a cycle and used to cycle near Birla temple for three days a week. I worked very hard and along with a little luck was selected to play for my state in the nationals. One of the selectors saw me and took me to the Indian camp.
Another lucky instance was when I was playing the Junior World Cup. I was only 16. I hit a goal against Pakistan in the Junior World Cup at Delhi in 1988. Whenever it is India vs Pakistan, in any sport, you get more recognition. Pakistan was a strong team. The Indian team was going to play the Seoul Olympics. They came to see us play. We were playing on AstroTurf. I dived and slipped. The goalkeeper came in the wrong foot and it was a goal. That is when it was decided that I will play senior hockey. A player moves to the senior level from the junior level at 20 years. I was only 16. I was lucky there, too. They said he is from the south and plays simple hockey. We have to give him a chance. From 1989, I started playing in the senior Indian team. I kept working hard irrespective of the result, whether I got selected or not. That is how my 16-year career started, with a lot of hurdles.
Any Olympic match memory?
There's one negative and one positive. The 1992 Barcelona Olympics, I was practicing drag-pushing for six months and even went to Jalandhar. I designed a stick because once the ball hits the stick, you just pull and hit it within seconds. The team assigned me as the pusher of the short-corner. I practiced that for two-three years. In the 1992 Olympics, Pargat Singh was the captain. We were playing Germany and were behind 1-0 with only three to four minutes of the first half remaining when we got a short-corner. I decided to quickly put that away when the ball slipped from my grip. In Patiala where we trained, all the judo and boxing players saw the match. When I went back to the camp, everyone started asking who's Mukesh Kumar? I thought I was famous but they had come to beat me up. "Can't you even push the ball within three seconds?" they asked. That is a negative memory I have.
Coming to the positive. It was in Sydney 2000 when I scored the fastest goal in 32 seconds against Australia at zero angle. It was an Olympic record. Even the goalkeeper did not expect it. It went through the small gap. These are some of my negative and positive memories which I always have in my mind. Decisions are very important in life because I was also supposed to play four Olympics like Dhanraj Pillai. In Ludhiana, we were training at a racecourse. When I saw the place I was shocked. When the coach asked me to do 10 rounds, I was a bit hesitant seeing the size of the ground. I stayed there for two days and came back saying I have an injury. If I had seen it as the 4th Olympics, I would have played my 4th Olympic games like Dhanraj Pillai. I did not have advisors back then. I couldn't make decisions. If I had taken a decision, I wouldn't have had regrets now. Dhanraj Pillai is the only player to play in four Olympics on the Astroturf. Five of them had played three Olympics but he is the only one to play four, which is very tough.
In 2019, there were allegations that you produced fake documents to get a job. What's your take on that?
Our age is based on what our parents write on our birth certificate. It was the same for me. From Class I to X, I was an SC student. In 88', the Railways gave me a job under sports quota. As we kept winning, we kept getting promotions. During the Narasimha Rao regime, I got a petrol bunk. I wanted it under my father's name but my elder brother told me to make it under his name. That is where the clashes began. I rarely came here. I used to come here for two days and then go back to play for Air India. He used to handle all my accounts. I even have bills saying "Rs. 5 SC boy" which my brother had kept carefully. This is the proof now. I am fighting a case in the High Court. You can make me an SC or a BC or whatever, I will follow it. I followed whatever my parents told me. If I take any benefit, take action. I have seen recent cases in the HC where people have availed of benefits and in the end said I don't want to be an SC. When I say I've not taken any benefits, they say prove yourself. I am from the sports quota. I got all my documents through a proper channel from Air India. People keep making allegations, what can one do? You have to face it.
What are you doing at present?
Hockey India has asked me to run the association. I have played for Hyderabad for seven-eight years and faced problems. There were no reservations. There were no kits. I made sure a kit was provided, with tracksuits and everything. So whatever problems I faced, I made sure I solved those problems. I've conducted tournaments like inter-district for three-and-a-half years. Andhra Hockey Association secretary, Niranjan Reddy, was there to guide me. He told me, "The association has trust in you, do it Mukesh". Once the allegations started, even my parents told me this is happening to you even though you've done so much for the sport. When you have to run an association, you need to sacrifice your family and career. If you need to develop, you need to concentrate. So I have concentrated for three-and-a-half years. Once the allegations started I decided to be a selector. I decided that whoever is good at the sport, will come forward. So I'm the selector for Telangana state hockey. Even now, I'm trying. I've told all the schools that I can come and serve whoever is interested in playing hockey. I want to share my experience with the next generation. Take the example of Mohammed Shahid. He is one of the legends who played the game all over the world. The association did not use him. He had all the talent in the world. When I went to Holland, Australia, and Germany in 1989, everyone asked us "Where is Mohammed Shahid?" Everyone wanted to see his magical skills. Just like Maradona, the public waited to see his skills. He had retired. They told us, "What have you come here for?". His skills are gone with him. So when I get the opportunity, I want to pass on my skills to the next generation. That is why I have reached out to all the schools. Even they are facing problems as they don't have playgrounds.
Cricket has taken over hockey. How will a young sportsperson take up hockey amidst this?
It was from 1994 when Jagmohan Dalmiya made cricket professional. If you play cricket, you will be paid a lot. When Dalmiya came, he increased the match fees to Rs. 25,000. He made it commercial. There should be more presidents like him. In hockey, they say why are you giving it to the players? Giving to the association is enough. For example, Mukesh Ambani's wife is interested in women's hockey. But the association says if we bring them in, they will dominate. These egos did not let hockey develop whereas other sports developed. Take cricket, 60 per cent of the revenue is spent on players whereas other associations don't spend. Sponsors are coming forward but are not spending on the players. Take Sachin. He can dictate to federations. But KPS Gill, he is an IPS. We are hockey players but we are not getting rich. Once they are paid, things will change. Look at me. I'm an Arjuna awardee, Padma Shri and a triple Olympian. I travel by scooter. If they see me travel in a scooter, how will the next generation of players get motivated and take up hockey? They can't. When Azharuddin comes in a BMW or a Benz, kids are like wow. This is what you get when you play cricket for the country.
Cricketers also maintain themselves. I was sitting with a few Ranji players at a party. A few of them don't have a house of their own but they still own big cars worth Rs. 14-15 lakhs. That's their status. Kids see that and feel if you play Ranji, this is what you get. But in hockey, there is no such thing. In IPL, players are being sold for Rs. 5-10 crores. Most of the next generation thinks if you play IPL that's enough. If you play a test match for the country, you get Rs. 2-3 lakh. If you play 15 international or test matches, you get a pension of Rs. 45-50,000. If the federation doesn't see the players who've sacrificed for the country, the next-generation will only take up the sport as a career when there is a platform like this. If they see us, they can't think of taking up the sport as a career.
What are you doing for hockey in Telangana?
We are planning to tie up with seven to eight schools to share my skills and experience with the next generation. The only problem is we don't have playgrounds nearby. They are 20-25 km away. My wife who is also a former hockey player was part of two Asian Games and two world cups. She works for the Railways from 9:30 a.m to 6 p.m. She comes home tired. In sports, we have to make sacrifices. Children will dream of playing the sport but there should be someone to take them to the playground. Fulfilling the child's dream is important irrespective of whether they will be successful or not. So I'm trying to help schools which are within 10km and also fulfilling the dreams of my children. My daughter trained at the Gopichand Academy for five years. She was ranked number 7 in her category. But she is interested in academics. So she is in her second year of CA. My son is practicing at the Gagan Narang academy in Tirumalgherry. I have to fulfill their dreams as I'm fulfilling someone else's.
In sports, age is important. Age and skill won't come back. In hockey, one has to learn the basic between the age of 7-8. At 15, the body doesn't allow you. That movement will not come. If you don't play at the right time, you won't be fit to play further. The association pressurised me to be a part of it as there was no one else and I agreed. Once my children are settled, I will look forward to it because to be an Indian coach will take three to four years. You come home for two days and again run to this camp, that camp. So now, I would like to give time to my family because I have sacrificed 16 years for my country free of cost. Now, my main aim is to look after my children. If there are any assignments here, especially schools, I can share my experience with the schools.
What should be done for the growth of hockey in Hyderabad?
The coaches we have now are not sufficient. If we pay Rs. 20,000 and ask them to coach, no one will agree. If you need a ground of an international standard, one has to go to Gachibowli which is 35 km away from here. Even in my colony, children want to learn but the coaches are in Gachibowli. If all the municipal grounds nearby are used for sports and walking tracks it'll be great. Second thing is, they have to open a sports quota. We have a quota in everything. I played hockey because I thought it will get me a job and not because I wanted to play for India. Every person will think the sport will get them a job. If one gets a job, he will play more honestly. They will have confidence and back up. In case of a major injury, years of hard work will go in vain. Now compare a normal person and a sportsperson in terms of decision making. Take cricket and hockey where players have to decide in seconds what they are going to do. My coach always said if you do it with your heart you will always be successful.