Despite his exclusion from the national team, Arjun Halappa has proved that he is one of the best forwards in the country

As the curtains came down on the 2 Hockey India Senior National championships earlier this month and the end-of-tournament prizes were faithfully handed out, it was hard to escape a glorious irony. The Best Forward, it was announced to lusty applause, was Air India’s Arjun Halappa – a declaration, by the jury, that of all the forwards from the 34 teams that pitched up at the ten-day national competition, he had been the finest.

Yet in Hockey India’s own considerations, Halappa does not merit a place in the national team. The matter is of course not entirely straightforward, and there are issues from beyond the pitch, but on the face of it, the country’s best forward (admittedly) does not play for the country.

It is an irony not lost on Halappa. However, the 31-year-old has little time for self-pity or regret. “I am doing what I enjoy the most – playing hockey,” he says. “I have shown that I can still perform at this level; now it is up to other people to decide. But I’m never going to lobby for a place or beg anybody. If you think I am good enough, pick me.”

Halappa’s exile from India duty began in February last year, when he was put on ‘standby’ – essentially a gentle nudge towards the exit where a push may prove messy – for the Olympic qualifiers. “I was bitterly disappointed because I did not deserve it,” he says. “My performance had nothing to do with it.” Hurt, he declined the offer to standby, and was on the verge of giving up the sport altogether. Fortunately, for him and perhaps the sport, Dhanraj Pillay – the Air India coach – talked him out of it. “Dhanraj sir told me: ‘Hockey has given you everything. You can’t do this.’ My wife’s support was also critical.”

Halappa pooh-poohs age as the reason behind his exclusion. “A player doesn’t lose his ability overnight when he hits 30. It’s a ridiculous thought. In fact, I’d argue that a player reaches his peak only in his late twenties. Your understanding of the game, your awareness of space, your distribution, everything improves. I can look back and say that as a 25-year-old I was not mature at all. What good is your running with the ball if you don’t know what to do with it?”

Just as the Indian team wound up qualification for the Olympics, Halappa entered World Series Hockey – now an event unsanctioned by the FIH (hockey’s international governing body).

The stint has perhaps shut the door on his and a few other international careers, as things stand now.

As expected, none of the WSH players made it to the final Olympic squad or have since been called up (nine have been named in the national camp scheduled to begin on October 15, but are all on standby). They were allowed to participate in these national championships, but the decision was as self-serving as it was generous.

This freezing-out, Halappa feels, is only damaging the sport. “Look, people will only turn up when there are good players, big players. How will you attract people to hockey otherwise? I’m not blaming anybody, but the game is suffering because of this. It’s really sad.”

The damage was all too visible at the Olympics, according to several coaches and players, not least Rehan Butt. India could have avoided finishing last, the Pakistani great said recently, had they used the services of India’s WSH exiles, the likes of Halappa and Bharat Chikkara.

“Well, it’s a great compliment coming from someone like him,” Halappa says. “You can never say for sure that things would have panned out differently, but I can’t deny that it would have made some difference at least to have these players available. I’m not talking about myself here – it could have been any of the players. They might have improved the team at least that little bit more.”

For now, Halappa’s focus is on playing any tournament that his employer, Air India, wishes him to.

“Though I was not in the national camp I never ignored my fitness. My commitment to doing well for Air India has never wavered; I’m happy that way.”

Retirement is still not in his thoughts, but Halappa has no illusions of immortality. “I will never overstay my welcome. If I feel I’m not contributing to the team, I won’t wait a single day,” he says. “But now, I’ve silenced everyone who said I was finished, that I was too old. I have proven them all wrong. Nobody will end my career for me. Only Arjun Halappa will do that.”