There are many Yuvraj Walmikis in Mumbai hockey, living on the edge and waiting for the right break. The young Indian striker is in the news for his courageous performance with the senior squad at the Asian Champions Trophy final against Pakistan.
Coach Michael Nobbs chose the 21-year-old debutant for the penalty shootout, and the Mumbai striker responded with an audacious reverse hit goal.
Yuvraj returned home to a hero's welcome, and the celebrations continued in Marine Lines, where he lives in a shed. The youngster is one of many from the Bombay Republicans Club assembly line, staying in proximity to the Mumbai Hockey Association Stadium under tough conditions and with families trying to make ends meet. Republicans co-founder Merzban Patel named four other players from similar backgrounds.
Nobbs's faith in Yuvraj's ability is the key, points out Patel. “There is talent in India waiting for a chance. We need coaches like Nobbs to back them. Yuvraj is in the news now for fulfilling his dream of playing for India despite living in a home sans even electricity.
“There are at least five more poor kids at Republicans, talented and hungry for exposure, hoping to make a living from hockey,” says the hockey promoter known for spotting and nurturing Olympians Gavin Ferreira, Viren Rasquinha and Adrian D'Souza, to name a few.
Awaiting their chance
He lists Anand Rai, Yuvraj's cousins Anup and Vinay, Amit Gowda and Pabitra Sabat as youngsters from financially poor backgrounds capable of tracing the Indian striker's footsteps. “Yuvraj came to Republicans as a kid and trained like other kids on cement courts behind the MHA astroturf.
“Older players helped them out with kits, shoes and hockey sticks. He attracted attention for his powerful hits in training during the Bombay Gold Cup, when the turf was thrown open after the completion of matches,” said Patel.
While on a stipend from Bank of India came a switch to Air-India for exposure in national tournaments. During his final year at Rizvi College, Yuvraj was a frequent flier, attending numerous national camps for juniors, youth and seniors before catching Nobbs's eye at Bangalore.
“Yuvraj's cousins Anup and Vinay live in similar conditions near the Wankhede. Anand's father runs a cycle-hire shop at Marine Lines, Pabitra and Gowda stay in chawls nearby. (A chawl is a type of building, often with four to five storeys, with about 10 to 20 tenements, referred to as kholis, which literally mean rooms on each floor). All five come from poor families and so supporting hockey-playing kids is tough,” points out Patel.
“I am no coach, so all I could offer Yuvraj was competitive experience playing for the club, motivation to train despite difficulties at home and convincing his parents to support him,” said Patel, revealing that the player's father, employed as a private driver, took loans to keep his kids interested in hockey and home fires burning.
Now, the same kid, whose self-confidence impressed Nobbs to shortlist him for the final shootout, is struggling to balance time between media interviews and invites from politicians for felicitations.
The darkness at home is over; a new electricity connection has given Yuvraj's home a new identity in the neighbourhood.
“He has broken down barriers. Kids from poor families across India have one more reason to keep playing,” observed Patel, for whom Yuvraj's brother Devendra is the next link in the Walmiki chain, currently in Jalandhar for a National under-21 camp.