In the sporting world, scandals and controversies aren’t too far away. Sometimes, some of them go unnoticed, others leave a lasting impact on how the game is played. For India’s star defender Lalit Kumar Upadhyay, an attempt to unearth one such scandal, brought his fledgling career to a halt, despite him having not played a role in the entire melee.

Today Upadhyay, 25, is an integral part of India’s national hockey team. However, the struggle find his way into the squad has been anything but easy. Despite his impressive performances, Upadhyay has had to fend off an innocuous blot that has nearly made him quit the game.

“I was on the verge of quitting the sport,” says Upadhyay when broached about the subject. It isn’t an episode that any player will forget easily.

In 2008, a sting operation by news channel Aaj Tak brought the then 17-year-old Upadhyay’s career to a sudden halt. Reporters from the channel posed as agents offered then Indian Hockey Federation (IHF) secretary K Jothikumaran a sponsorship deal only if a player of their choice was taken into the Indian team. The reporters took Upadhyay’s name as bait. What followed was not what Upadhyay had foreseen. Jothikumaran was sacked and the IHF disbanded. Upadhyay was labeled to be buying himself a place into the team.

Later on, the channel admitted that Upadhyay’s name was taken just to trick the official and he had nothing to do with the sting operation. However, by then, his name had taken a beating and he was sidelined from being picked in the national squad.

On the verge of quitting

It’s been nine long years but Upadhyay is reluctant to recollect that testing period in his playing career. “I broke into the under-21 team and was in reckoning for the senior men’s team. I was developing my game and confidence and then this happened,” says the defender who decided to follow his dream of making a career in hockey instead of doing a regular job after clearing his 12th standard exam.

“I had a family to support and my family background wasn’t well to do as well. But I always thought Kuch toh dega ye hockey (hockey will give me something),” said Upadhyay, whose father ran a shop in Varanasi while his mother was a housewife.

However, the scandal broke Upadhyay completely. “If it wasn’t for my parents and family I would have left hockey. They said that if you leave, people will think that you did give money because not many followed hockey back then. That was the most crucial point in my life. I was on the verge of quitting the sport,” he added.

Even reading inspiring quotes didn’t help. “I used to read lot of quotes saying don’t give up and stuff, But in real life, when it is time to apply those sayings, even the best in the business falter. The motivation of reading those quotes is only for 15 minutes but the real motivation is self-motivation.”

Sheer willpower

“The incident was unfortunate. He had nothing to do with it,” said his childhood Parmanand Mishra, who helped him cope with the issue.

However, Upadhyay trusted his hockey skills and backed himself to get rid of this blot. “I fought a lot. I used to cry also. People used to comment but I knew that if I played well, people will stop talking. I have played enough to ensure that no one can question my credentials today.”

“I told him not to lose hope. He was depressed and had stopped playing the sport for a few days. But his parents and me kept motivating him. I told him that God was testing him. I told him to believe in himself and just work hard on his game. He had the talent but he lacked confidence back then,” said Mishra.

Upadhyay continued to train at the SAI Training Centre in Varanasi. His hard work impressed many including former India captain Dhanraj Pillay, who offered him a contract to play with Air India in 2010. “Dhanraj sir helped me a lot during that period. He and Mishra sir kept me motivated throughout this episode,” said Upadhyay.

Then came the Hockey India League and Upadhyay was picked by the Kalinga Lancers in 2014. He went on to represent them till 2017. After seeing his contract through at Air India, Upadhyay joined Bharat Petroleum in 2014, who also offered him an officer’s role. “Tushar Khandker played an instrumental role in my career and helped me join BPCL,” said Upadhyay.

Today, Upadhyay is one of the best defenders in the squad and was one of the key performers when India won the Asia Cup and HWL Final bronze.

“Today, you guys are asking me this question because I am here. From 2008 to 2012, no one knew Lalit Upadhyay. Everyone knew what had happened but no one asked whether I was innocent. No one came ahead to support me as well. Today I am an example for people that if a person is innocent then you should help him. A person cannot fight with himself always,” said Upadhyay.

“Everything I have today is due to hockey. But scars don’t heal. I am here because of that period. That time taught me three things. How to manage pressure. Perform under extremely tough conditions and the most important is to never lose hope in yourself,” he said. “I don’t blame anyone and don’t regret what happened. I completed my dream by playing for India.”