When Arun Panchia is not playing hockey, he’s working as a full-time insurance agent – not in India, though. The man with Gujarati roots is leading New Zealand at the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup in Ipoh, Malaysia.
The lobby of the Impiana Hotel was abuzz with hockey activity when Panchia, accompanied by his media manager, Kevin Marr, walked up. “Hi, I am Arun Panchia,” he greeted after a cue from Panchia, who facilitated this freewheeling chat with Scroll.in.
This is Panchia’s second stint as the Black Sticks captain, but for the first time he will lead his team against the country of his ancestors – India.
India will play the Black Sticks in their second league fixture of the tournament on Sunday. When Panchia goes out for the toss with PR Sreejesh, he will take the legacy of Indian-origin sportspersons in New Zealand a step higher.
Introduction to hockey
Introducing himself to begin the chat, Panchia was quick to describe his Indian ancestry. “My great-grandfather came to New Zealand in the 1920s,” the 28-year-old said. “My grandfather and both my parents were born in New Zealand. I myself have only been to India for hockey, though we still have some family in the Gujarat region.”
Panchia made his international debut in 2009, and his first visit to India was during the 2010 World Cup in Delhi. But the hockey bug bit him well before that, when he was just five. “A couple of my uncles and all my cousins played the game,” Panchia, who was also part of the Rio Olympics last year, said. “So we got into it at a young age. I started playing proper hockey from about five years old.”
But once the eldest of three siblings started making waves, hockey became the obvious choice for the younger ones. “My brother and sister have had sticks in their hand since they started walking,” he said. “We are always playing in our backyard together.”
Panchia’s inspiration in hockey were the Indians who broke into the New Zealand team. “As an Indian, you look up to the Indian players,” he said. “For me, it was Bevan Hari and Umesh Parag. They were in the New Zealand team [during early 2000s] when I was growing up.”
A lot of Indian-origin sportspersons have gone on to represent New Zealand, starting from Deepak Patel in cricket to Ish Sodhi now, and the likes of Hari, Parag and Panchia in hockey. The Black Sticks captain believes “you learn off each other”.
He said, “I am not sure if there is a common reason, but there is a very big Indian community in New Zealand, all through the regions. They stay very strong together and you learn off each other. There are always people to help you through.”
Balancing two jobs
But it’s never easy, even if you have 200 international caps, like Panchia. Hockey is not a professional sport in New Zealand. So players need to do other jobs to pay their bills. Panchia, the insurance agent, is no different. “We [players] only get a little bit of money to help us train,” said the 2010 Commonwealth Games bronze medallist. “So most of us either work or study. I work for an insurance and investments company. I am at work 9 to 5. Before and after work I am training.”
While Panchia’s employer is gracious enough to relieve him for hockey, it’s always leave without pay. “The company I work for, AMP, is very good,” he said. “When I applied for a role, they obviously knew I was a Black Stick and spend a lot of time away on tours. They are very supportive of that. Any kind of hockey leave I ask for, they tend to give me and make it very easy for me. Unpaid leave unfortunately.”
Panchia first captained New Zealand only recently, against Pakistan earlier this month. But he wasn’t expecting this elevation until the selectors broke the news to him. “It was a bit of surprise,” the Auckland resident said. “We have got a new coach on board and a young team. I try not to let it [captaincy] change how I approach the game. I try to stick to my natural game and lead by example. Hopefully that follows through on the turf.”
And he’s not thinking too far ahead, either. “As long as I enjoy playing hockey, I will keep playing,” he said. But one thing stays on top of Arun’s bucket list. “I would love to travel through the regions in India and visit some of the villages my ancestors came from. Hopefully soon!”