The Indian hockey team made their FIH Pro League debut last month with a double win over the third-ranked Netherlands.
It was made possible by the plethora of attacking talent at the team’s disposal and Lalit Upadhyay is an indispensable part of it.
The forward scored two goals across the games, constantly pestered the Dutch backline and was rightly adjudged ‘Man of the Match’ in the first game. However, all of this seemed a distant dream around a decade ago.
An operation that stung unintentionally
Lalit Upadhyay’s talent was always apparent. He picked up the game as an 11-year-old after watching his elder brother play and the sport’s popularity in his school in Varanasi meant that he only gravitated towards it even more.
His rise was rapid and he was training with the U-21 Indian team just four years later. Things were looking up for the lad, but he was brought down to earth for no fault of his. In fact, his ambitions of playing for the senior team had buried itself under the soil.
In 2008, reporters from a news channel posed as agents and offered the then IHF secretary, K Jothikumaran, a sponsorship deal if a player from Uttar Pradesh would be selected in the national team. When Jothikumaran asked who the player was, Lalit Upadhyay’s name was put forward.
While Jothikumaran was sacked in the aftermath, the operation stung Lalit Upadhyay. The youngster was unaware of any such ‘deal’ but his name had been doing the rounds in the Indian hockey circles and rumours spread faster than any wildfire ever could.
He was accused of buying his way into the team, which actively discouraged selectors. The ecosystem of the sport he loved and hoped to make a career in was rejecting him outright. “I was on the verge of quitting the sport,” Lalit Upadhyay had told Scroll.in.
A former captain to the rescue
The reaction was justified for anyone faced with such a situation, but his family acted as his support system. “They said that if you leave, people will think that you did give money because not many followed hockey back then,” he added in the interview.
He paid heed and continued preparing at the Sports Authority of India (SAI) training centre in Varanasi. This is where he was given a new lease of life by former captain of the Indian hockey team, Dhanraj Pillay.
The veteran was impressed by Lalit Upadhyay and offered him a contract to play for Air India. He gleefully accepted and piled on the efforts, developing his skills on the wings, eventually being voted ‘Rookie of the Year’ at the World Series Hockey tournament in 2012.
There was no looking back after that as the youngster made his senior India debut in 2014 and played in the Hockey World Cup that year. Since then, he has helped India to golds in the 2016 and 2018 Asian Champions Trophy and the 2017 Asia Cup, the latter being a self-confessed favourite moment. He was also a part of the bronze-winning squad at the 2018 Asian Games.
Lalit Upadhyay’s ability to play anywhere across the front line is a major asset for Indian hockey team coach, Graham Reid’s style of attacking play. The team has grown its mental strength tremendously in the past year or so and with characters like Lalit Upadhyay in the squad, it is no surprise why.