The first thing you notice when you meet Indian hockey forward Abhishek is his calm demeanour and his incredibly shy nature. Every answer is precluded by a sheepish smile as if he himself can’t believe the things he has done on the hockey field.

The second thing you notice about him is a scar on his left hand which runs the length of his forearm, a remnant of a rare instance of indiscipline from his childhood.

“Once during practice, our coach hadn’t arrived yet. Next to our ground, there was a jamun tree and we were plucking fruits. The wall next to it had glasses and barbed wire on the top and I fell and cut my hand on a piece of glass. I was scared my family wouldn’t even let me play hockey after that,” Abhishek told during an interaction before CWG 2022.

“I had gone with the senior team for a tournament and I rushed to the hospital as soon as I came back,” Abhishek’s childhood coach Shamsher Singh told this publication, recalling the incident.

“He was in the operation theatre and I met with his mother and aunt. His mother was very scared and did not want Abhishek to play hockey again because they were scared he’ll hurt himself. I assured them that injuries are a part of game and urged them to not let this one incident come in the way.

“When Abhishek regained consciousness, the first thing he said to his mother was, ‘Mummy, tu mujhe hockey khelne se toh nahi rokegi?’ (Mother, you won’t stop me from playing hockey, will you?) His mother’s heart melted seeing his passion for the game and she told him she will not,” Shamsher added.

Today, Abhishek – wearing the No 5 jersey for the Indian side – is starting to become an integral part of the Indian senior time. Having made his senior debut in the last season of FIH Pro League, he has started in the first XI in all four matches of the latest season

That incident, Shamsher says, was the turning point in Abhishek’s life.

Image courtesy: Shamsher Singh
Abhishek with coach Shamsher Singh after winning silver at CWG 2022

Hindi teacher turned hockey coach

Abhishek picked up a hockey stick for the first time in 2008 following his childhood friend. While his friend dropped out, Abhishek stayed on, partly for the love of the game and partly because it challenged him more than football and other sports which were popular in school. In Shamsher, he found an ‘accidental’ coach willing to push him to greater things.

Shamsher, now 57, joined Sonepat’s CRZ school in 1988 as a Hindi teacher who only had a passing knowledge of hockey. The school boasted a strong hockey team which led to Shamsher slowly developing a liking for the sport.

While the hockey team had a dedicated coaching staff, sports like football, basketball and volleyball had no coaches. As a hostel warden, Shamsher would oversee these teams while also observing how the hockey teams and coaching staff functioned.

After the funding from the Sports Authority of India was stopped in 2005, the school had to lay off the hockey coaching staff. At the insistence of the students, Shamsher took over coaching duties of the hockey team to ensure the school wouldn’t disband its hockey program.

Three years later, Abhishek was part of CRZ’s hockey program under Shamsher. In his unique role as a teacher/warden, the new coach was able to monitor his wards closely. A stickler for discipline, he would ensure his students were up at 4.00 am for practice, would attend school regularly and also studied during their study periods.

That rigid discipline is still seen in Abhishek.

“When I call my students and ask them if he has changed, they always tell me that Abhishek is still the same. Chaal dhaal me koi badlaav nai hui hain (His demeanour hasn’t changed),” Shamsher said.

When training new students, Shamsher did not assign them roles early on, instead choosing to train them in the basics of hockey and let them develop. However, in Abhishek’s case, he realised that the Sonepat-boy had all the makings of a centre forward.

“In the basic training itself Abhishek stood out with his talent. He was skilful and there was not a single tournament where he did not start as centre forward. Even if he made mistakes, he never let the pressure get to him. Everyone knew that given the chance, he will make a mark with confidence. I used to arrange matches for his team against teams above their age groups. He never had that fear of playing against senior teams. His mind did not have any fear at all,” Shamsher said.

Abhishek, he added, is also the kind of player who lets his hockey stick do the talking for him.

“He never speaks a lot. A lot of kids, when you ask them before a match, will say they’ll score these many goals and win by this margin. Abhishek would only say ‘koshish karenge’. He doesn’t run his mouth and does not indulge in tooting his own horn. It’s not in his nature at all,” Shamsher added.

Image courtesy: Shamsher Singh
Shamsher (standing 2nd from left) and Abhishek (sitting 2nd from left)

In the 2012-13 season, the state team finished third in the junior nationals. With Abhishek in the team the next season, Haryana regularly began finishing on the podium in various sub-junior tournaments.

Abhishek then was part of the Indian team which won the 2016 U-18 Asian Cup in Bangladesh andscored a last-gasp winner in their 5-4 win over the hosts in the final.

However, the next couple of years saw Abhishek fail to progress much further. Shamsher recounted calling up former students and people he knew in the Indian hockey set up to understand when Abhishek was unable to make further inroads.

“I used to call him up often and tell him not to lose hope and that his chance will definitely come. It will be delayed but your hard work and effort will not go to waste. He never lost hope and kept on working at his game,” he said.

India breakthrough

After being on the sidelines for three years, Abhishek finally got his India call-up after scoring six goals to help Punjab National Bank finish third in the 2021 Senior Men Inter-Department National Championship.

He made his debut in the 2021-’22 FIH Pro League when India went to South Africa in February this year and has since made himself a mainstay. “Abhishek is a striker who scored quite a few goals at the National Championships. He was quite prolific in the trial games we had at the camp. It will be exciting,” chief coach Graham Reid had said announcing the forward’s inclusion.

He was also crucial part of India’s silver medal-winning team at the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham and his stick skills have impressed fans and commentators.

“The other forwards in the Indian team have been in the national team set up for four-five years more than Abhishek. But the art and confidence of scoring goals from solo runs that he has, is better than anyone else. If you had to compare him with former players, he reminds you of India’s Mohammed Shahid or Pakistan’s Shahbaz Ahmad. That ability to run past and dodge multiple players and score, that is different in him. He is never afraid,” Shamsher said.

In the 2022-23 FIH Pro League season which began in Odisha at the end of October, Abhishek was once again at the heart of many an Indian attack. That absence of fear and the ability to take on multiple defenders and still retain the ball was on full display at the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar.

In India’s 7-4 win over New Zealand, Abhishek received the ball just outside the circle on the right. With his back to a Black Sticks’ defender, he spun around quickly to get away before switching sides to get past another lunging defender before squaring the ball towards the penalty spot for Mandeep Singh and Raj Kumar Pal finally bundled it into the goal.

In a team that has forwards like Mandeep and Dilpreet who have the knack of being in the right place at the right time, Abhishek’s close control and fearless dribbling is an asset. While India have tried to move past individual play under Reid, stressing on combination play where possible, Abhishek is almost a throwback player who offers a different option in attack while also showing the passing skills to thrive in this system.

Shamsher is proud knowing that after being on the sidelines for three years, Abhishek is finally fulfilling his potential for the world to see.

“His talent is not hidden anymore. Since playing in the Pro League last season, he has not been dropped even once. That shows his quality,” Shamsher said.

With Odisha hosting the FIH Men’s Hockey World Cup in 2023, India will hope that the soft-spoken Abhishek continues to do the talking on the field with the stick in his hand.