The drag flick expert found himself out of favour but made his way back.
VR Raghunath was only 28 when he announced his retirement from the India hockey team, ending a career which spanned a little over a decade. In that time, he had a rollercoaster ride that found him without a place in the team, gaining weight on the sidelines and then picking himself up again to cement a comeback that only he could call time on. It summed up his mental strength and resilience needed to attain success at the highest level.
Such were the attributes characterised by former India hockey defender and drag-flick expert VR Raghunath, who never let his confidence drop despite being omitted from the team at times, and made his presence felt when his team needed him the most.
Vokkaliga Ramachandra Raghunath, better known as VR Raghunath, was born in the small village of Hathur in Karnataka’s Kodagu district in 1988.
Right from when he was nine years old, Raghunath was inclined towards a career in sport with his father VS Ramachandra — a former India hockey player — being a strong influence on him in his early years.
As a youngster, he was an avid basketball as well as a hockey player; and played both at school level. However, the love for hockey slightly overpowered his craze for badminton, and right from a young age, he harboured aspirations of one day winning medals for India.
In 2003, Raghunath gave a trial at the Sports Authority of India in Bengaluru, and was subsequently picked to be part of India’s sub-junior team for the 2003 Asia Cup. The youngster made his mark as a defender in that competition and helped his side to the title.
A couple of years later, VR Raghunath made the step up to the senior India hockey team, when he was flown in as a last-minute replacement for Sandeep Singh for a bilateral series against Pakistan. He was only 17 years old at that time and was given limited game time by the Indian coach.
To bolster his chances of forging a starting berth in the India hockey team, a young Raghunath worked on his drag flicking abilities to help contribute to his side’s attack as well.
“I observed that India hadn’t had many quality drag flickers. It is one important skill required in the team to convert close games to wins. I thought that I had the build for it, and I put in extra hours under the sun, training for it,” said Raghunath.
Raghunath was then picked in the India hockey team for the 2008 Sultan Azlan Shah Cup and he proved solid in defence in that competition, helping his side claim a silver medal. Despite his best efforts though, the youngster faced stiff competition among the Indian defence, with established Indian hockey players like Sandeep Singh, Jugraj Singh and Ignace Tirkey competing for the same position.
The first few months of 2010 were some of the most challenging times for Raghunath, as he was dropped from the India hockey team just days before the FIH men’s Hockey World Cup which was to be played on home soil. He had gained a lot of weight and that was beginning to affect his fitness. Raghunath missed the 2010 Commonwealth Games as well — another tournament played on home turf where India bagged the silver medal.
The defender, though, never let his confidence drop despite the ouster and showed great resilience and dedication towards the game in a bid to make a comeback to the India hockey team. Raghunath performed brilliantly in the Indian domestic circuit, excelling in the subsequent Bhopal Senior Trials.
Within a year, the muscular defender was back in the Indian setup and had become a mainstay of the team at the 2012 London Games. The appointment of new Australian coach Michael Nobbs and physio David John also played a big role in Raghunath’s comeback to the squad and also helped the India hockey team get better results.
The India hockey team, however, struggled at the 2012 Olympics, finishing bottom of their group after conceding 18 goals in that competition. The men’s hockey team also struggled in the 2012-13 FIH Pro League, finishing the competition in sixth place.
With a string of poor performances, India were expected to struggle at the 2013 Asia Cup, with many top sides like Malaysia, Pakistan and South Korea also participating in the tournament.
However, that competition turned out to be a revelation for the team and for VR Raghunath. The defender showed his drag-flicking prowess, scoring six goals as India cruised into the final. They, however, lost a closely-contested final against South Korea 4-3 but VR Raghunath forever immortalized his stature in the India hockey scene at that 2013 Asia Cup, as he was awarded the ‘player of the tournament’ title.
VR Raghunath continued to be a vital cog of the India hockey setup and was part of the roster when India won a silver medal at the 2014 Commonwealth Games held in Glasgow and also played in the 2016 Rio Games.
For his efforts and contributions to Indian sport, the defender was conferred the prestigious Arjuna Award in 2016, alongside Indian women’s hockey player Ritu Rani.
VR Raghunath's retirement came in 2017 ending a career that produced 132 goals in 228 appearances, several international honours and medals, and leaving the Indian defence in the stable hands of Birendra Lakra, Harmanpreet Singh and Rupinder Pal Singh. Post-retirement, Raghunath has taken on the role of vice-president of the Karnataka Hockey Association.
His never say die attitude and undeterred determination helped him immortalise his stature in the India hockey camp. His story, undoubtedly, will inspire the next generation of athletes and Indian hockey players.