Editor’s note: The article was originally published April 2022. On October 4, Mumtaz Khan was named as the women’s FIH Rising Star of the Year 2021-22.

The FIH Hockey Junior Women’s World Cup might not have ended as well as it began for India as they returned from Potchefstroom with an agonising, heartbreaking fourth-place finish. But as the dust settles, the attention now turns to the future as these events are simply stepping stones to bigger things - senior international hockey.

For India, a potentially exciting addition to the roster of athletes is forward Mumtaz Khan, who was arguably the most impressive new name to emerge from the tournament.

The 19-year-old from Lucknow was India’s top goal scorer and third highest overall at the tournament in South Africa with eight goals. While she and her teammates finished fourth, much like their senior colleagues in Tokyo, there were more signs of India’s progress in the sport, and Mumtaz demonstrated that she could well be a name to remember in the years ahead.

In a conversation with Scroll.in, Mumtaz Khan outlined how she has trained to be that out-and-out goalscorer. “For us strikers, practicing goal-scoring is mandatory,” she said. “We also try to simulate different situations for that. We practiced passing the ball to each other a lot and eventually, whoever is in the best position scores the goal.”

Beyond the numbers too, her demeanour and body language on the field stand out, if one is able to take their eyes off her lightning quick stick-work.

Screenshot: FIH Hockey

Agility, stamina, raw speed, coupled with a commanding control of the ball and composure is what is needed to make a natural poacher. And that was the impression she had on her coaches in Lucknow, Neelam Siddiqui and Rashid Aziz Khan, when she first trained under their tutelage as a 13-year-old.

“What impressed me most was her natural speed. It’s what a hockey player must possess,” Neelam, who transferred to Barabanki after a successful tenure as the coach at the KD Singh Babu Stadium in Lucknow, told Scroll.in.

And she’s a fast learner, you don’t have to toil with her. You don’t need to repeat instructions with her, she works upon whatever is taught to her and she couples it up with some variations that she learns on her own.

“She also had the stamina that didn’t necessarily need further development, she possessed it naturally. Otherwise, as is the case with many skillful players, if their stamina depletes, they start making errors or get tired or stop. She has an advantage because she doesn’t tire.”

Family reluctance

Around six years ago, there was some resistance from Mumtaz’s mother Qaiser Jahan when Mumtaz declared her intentions to take up hockey as a career. Her mother was understandably worried about letting her daughter stay away from home, alone, in another part of the city and dedicate herself to competitive sport when their family could barely make ends meet.

It was Neelam who backed Mumtaz to fill the 10-rupee form and appear for the selection trials for the KD Singh Babu hostel.

“She was a diamond in the rough,” Neelam said, matter-of-factly, when asked what made her fight for Mumtaz’s cause.

During the youngster’s sister Farah’s wedding preparations, 13-year-old Mumtaz sneaked out on her father’s rickshaw to embark on the eight kilometer ride from Topkhana Bazaar to the stadium in Hazratganj to appear for the trials.

Mumtaz knew that her mother wouldn’t allow it but Farah, the eldest sibling, also knew of Mumtaz’s potential. Farah wanted all her siblings to have a future that was far from the pain and poverty their parents, who work as vegetable vendors, had lived through in the past.

Recalling the moment they received the letter of acceptance from the hostel, Farah said, “She didn’t expect to be accepted. She began to cry. She said, ‘How will I convince mummy, appi? How will I go?’”

Farah then convinced her mother and told her, “Let’s give it one chance. If we think it’s not alright, we will withdraw her admission. Agar kuch kar jaati hai apne liye, khel mein achha kar jaati hai, toh acha hi hai na.

Mumtaz then joined the KD Singh Babu hostel and eventually won the support of her mother, repaid the belief her sister had in her and proved Neelam right. In each stage of her life since then, she’s only improved.

Natural instincts of a poacher

India’s campaign at the World Cup began with an opening encounter against Wales. It was in the third quarter that Salima Tete, India’s captain, intercepted a pass in midfield. Mumtaz’s dash on the right flank caught her eye. On the rain-soaked blue turf in Potchefstroom, Tete scooped the ball forward.

The ball bounced towards Mumtaz, who cut inside and softened her hold on the hockey stick to keep the ball under control. That first touch was flawless, deflecting the ball away from Louise Loughlin, the defender. She then clipped it over the goalie. It was Mumtaz’s first goal of the World Cup. It’s how she announced her presence in South Africa.

“She always had a kind of junoon, one that doesn’t stop,” recalled Neelam. “She is so daring. Ghus ke khelti hai woh. She doesn’t worry about getting hurt physically. The constant pressure of playing like that is what is helping her now. As a result, she is the player in the team who is most likely going to put the pressure on the opposition.”

Mumtaz always had the instincts to be a natural poacher. When she was four, she hadn’t picked up a hockey stick yet but she was unknowingly honing her goal-scoring skills, walking around the bylanes of Topkhana Bazar with a 2-litre Pepsi bottle full of marbles that she won. When she was a little older, she was competing in a race in Agra during which she fainted due to severe heat. Even then, she picked herself up and continued to run on and won.

“We were worried when we heard about what happened when she ran but honestly, also relieved that she is capable of doing that,” her sister Farah said.

The word junoon is often mistaken for passion, when it actually means a kind of craze and madness. There is a method to the madness that athletes adopt to be that good. Neelam recalled one such incident during the national trials at Rajan Gaon when Mumtaz personified that junoon.

“The blade of an opponent’s stick had struck her bone near her jaw and neck. She fell down immediately and tried to get back up but when it started bleeding, we had to intervene. It was the first time I saw something like that. We rushed for some first aid after which she got some stitches. Even then, she kept saying, ‘Bhejo mujhe andar. Mujhe team ko jitana hai. Mujhe khelna hai’.

“She has always had this junoon naturally and look where it has taken her today.”

Mumtaz Khan and team-mates celebrate a goal against Korea

Of expectations and remaining grounded

Neelam and Farah are both aware that she still has a long way to go. There is the hope that Mumtaz will make it to the senior team and someday, the Olympics.

But they are aware that she must ensure consistency in both her performance and responsibility to the team as she still has two more years to compete at the junior level. Of course, there’s still scope to improve her skills, and perhaps become a candidate for captaincy for the Junior Hockey Women’s World Cup in 2024.

Farah said she will continue to run around for the needs of her little sister even as she tends to her own family after marriage, just so that she can help Mumtaz realize her dream and welcome her at the airport each time she returns from camp or a tournament.

Mumtaz, of course, continues to stay in touch with her childhood coaches Neelam and Rashid who remain supportive of her on and off the field.

“It is easy at such a young age to get carried away with the praise one receives, so she must ensure that she is on track. Our job is to handle that and keep her grounded,” Neelam added.

As Mumtaz returns to Lucknow, her focus is on recuperating for a couple of days before heading to Bangalore for a camp. Although those around her will continue to remind the youngster that this was only the first step of the ladder, the most heartening aspect perhaps is that Mumtaz already knows it.

“I don’t think I have reached the level as a striker to compete with my seniors,” she said. “The seniors are seniors after all, I want to firstly learn from them and then be like them. My expectation from my own self now is that I want to work on myself even more.”

With reporting inputs from Shahid Judge