Lalit Upadhyay – The man who perfectly lived up to the #10YearChallenge

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Lalit Upadhyay – The man who perfectly lived up to the #10YearChallenge

Lalit Upadhyay has been one of the important members of the Indian hockey team’s forward line for a while now but things weren’t great a decade ago. It has been a roller coaster ride for the Varanasi lad who has risen from the nadir with all the controversies to be a constant in the Indian team.

The #TenYearChallenge is doing the rounds on social media for the last few days and the story of the Indian forward will suit the best to this. Upadhyay is someone who went through some tough days in 2008 and he remained strong and determined during those. Someone who accidentally started as a goalie during his school days has always tried to move ahead both in his life and on the hockey turf. He has left all the off-field rumours and controversies behind and has only focussed on delivering the goods for the country. 

“I didn’t have an aim of playing hockey as a sport, there was no such sporting background in our family as well. My elder brother Amit Upadhyay was playing hockey well and once he had asked me to go to Lucknow as a goalkeeper in his team and I did that. I was more interested in football and was not quite interested in standing in front on the post. However, I started playing hockey after a year or so as per Bhai’s advice but my condition was not to play as a goalie anymore,” Upadhyay told SportsCafe during an exclusive interview.  

Things, however, were going in his favour during those days. His consistency and stick work earned him a place in Sports Authority of India (SAI)’s day-boarding facilities in his home town and he had a chance to represent SAI in various junior-level competitions in the country. Upadhyay credits coach Parmanand Mishra for his success during his starting few years with the sport as he supported him not only on the hockey field but helped him financially as well. His performance at an inter-SAI tournament in Bhopal caught the attention of the Indian board’s talent-search team under coach AK Bansal in 2007-08, who called him for the junior India camp for age groups like under 16, under 18 and under 21. 

He was also selected for the under 21 Indian team, but just when his career was showing a positive upward graph, things took an ugly turn in form of a sting operation by a media organisation back in 2008 which had made his life miserable then. It was Upadhyay’s name that was used in that sting operation against one of the board officials and the reporters of the TV channel claimed of being agents from Uttar Pradesh. This was the incident where, despite having nothing to do with the entire episode, the Varanasi lad had to face a lot of criticism and he had even thought to leave the sport. 

“I had never gone to any hostel or academy and people have that misconception that I was not a good player. I was trapped and had nothing to do with the entire controversy but at that time people around us went with the rumours and used to comment that I had bribed my way into the team. I had to prove that I deserved a place in the team and didn’t give any bribe to get there,” the forward explained. 

“I was about to leave hockey after the incident but my mother said, “If you leave the sport today then people will say that you gave money and played, play like that that the people will say that you deserved a place in the Indian team.” Her words had a great impact further in my career.” 

He had to wait for around six years to get back into the national team. With all the controversy surrounding the sport in the country, a franchise-based league in 2012 called World Series Hockey was started and apart from the domestic tournaments, the WSH was the only place for Upadhyay to show his skills and he bagged the Rookie of the Year Award representing Bhopal Badshahs as well. He had received good support from former India skipper Dhanraj Pillay and Olympian Sameer Dad while playing for Air India as a contractual recruit.

“I was not in the Indian camp had no other way out than playing in WSH. I wanted to play quality hockey and did that here,” said Upadhyay.

However, playing in WSH proved costly for him as he had to stay away from the inaugural edition of the Hockey India League (HIL) in 2013. But that was a blessing in disguise for the forward, come 2014 and Hockey India decided to bring him in its fold and he was immediately drafted into the Kalinga Lancers squad. Since then, he has never looked back and after a break of around six years, he is now a constant member of the Indian team.

 © Hockey India

“I want to thank Hockey India that they allowed me to come into their fold again and play in the HIL. We as players want a platform to prove ourselves and we were delighted to play in the league. I had a great season with Kalinga Lancers under Terry Walsh. He was the coach of the Indian team at that time as well and I managed to impress him with my game,” informed Upadhyay. 

After the league, he got a chance in the senior national camp and also travelled to the Netherlands for the Men’s Hockey World Cup. “The platform was very important as people remember the journey of a player once he has achieved something in his career. The league also made players financially stronger and it gave us name, fame and a good standard as well. 2014 was lucky in many ways for me as I got a permanent job offer from Bharat Petroleum after the World Cup then and it was coach Tushar Khandekar himself who called me to inform this.”  

The Lancers were crowned champions in the HIL and Upadhyay played an instrumental role in their success. He played all the four seasons for the Bhubaneswar-based franchise and hopes the league to resume again as soon as possible. “We as players only concentrate on playing hockey. We have the stick in our hands and our work is only to play. Whatever is happening off the failed is none of our business and we can only expect the tournament to resume and have no control over other things. It was not possible this time because of back to back tournaments that we had,” the 25-year-old opined. 

In the busy year of 2018, Upadhyay continued to remain fit and play in the Indian side in all the important tournaments starting from the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast till the World Cup in Bhubaneswar. He managed to find the back of the net on three occasions, once against South Africa and twice in the last league game against Canada.  India now has a good forward line with Akashdeep Singh and Mandeep Singh partnering with him in the current team. Upadhyay is of the opinion that the team is quite balanced and it was only unfortunate that the Men in Blue didn’t have the results to show. 

“India is no way inferior to the European teams in recent days. There is a strong message for other teams that India is not like before and we have a very good rhythm and team combination.

"There is no doubt that the team was doing really well in the World Cup and even against The Netherlands, we were leading and we were playing attacking hockey. I don’t want to blame anyone but one wrong decision can change the course of a match and it was a world cup quarter-final. We were pressing forward really well and had a high tempo in the game but at times, bad decisions break the momentum of a team. In Asian Games, we were one of the best in the whole tournament and it was just a bad day at office against Malaysia,” he explained.  

The Indian hockey team’s next target is to make it to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and with an aim of that, they will take part in the FIH Series Finals which will be played in Bhubaneswar in June this year. However, the Indian board is yet to appoint the head coach after Harendra Singh’s sacking following India’s World Cup exit after the quarter-final against the Dutchmen. Ahead of the qualifying tourney in June, they have the prestigious Sultan Azlan Shah Cup in Malaysia next month as well. 

“We as players are always ready mentally for tournaments and have to follow the instructions from the board. We now have a common goal of making it to the Tokyo Olympics and want to give our 100% towards it,” the forward stated.

When asked about his future aim as an international sportsperson, a determined Upadhyay replied, “The biggest personal happiness is donning the Indian jersey but the biggest achievement for the team will be doing something great for the country and win medals. As it is always said, “India khelna aasan hai lekin maintain karna mushkil hai (Playing for India is easy but maintaining it is tough).” I will try to remain fully fit to continue playing for my country and give 100% to get maximum medals for India.”

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