Former India hockey player Yuvraj Walmiki recalls the year 2009 with anguish. He was omitted from the Indian squad for the Junior World Cup at the last moment and was dropped from the camp a staggering 13 times. One after another.
At that point, he wanted to quit the game. The frustration of getting dropped got to him even though he had done enough to prove his credentials at the domestic level. But Merzban Patel, Bawa as he is fondly known, ignited the fire in him and Yuvraj was rewarded with a first senior call-up to the national team for the Asian Champions Trophy in 2011.
“I didn’t want to play anymore. But Bawa was that one person who would put fuel to the fire. I was tense and I had given away my entire hockey kit. I just wanted to disconnect from the game at that moment and thought of taking up some nice job,” Walmiki told Scroll.in.
“Even then, Bawa pushed me. He trusted me and said, ‘What are you thinking of the junior level? You’re made for the senior level.’ And what he said exactly happened. I never played junior nationals or championships. Every other kid goes through a transition but it was never like that for me. The first tournament I got selected, it was directly for India and that (Asian Champions Trophy) tournament changed my life,” he said.
Walmiki took to international hockey like a duck to water, scoring on his debut against China. However, the defining moment arrived when he scored during the penalty shootout to help India bag gold against arch-rivals Pakistan in the final.
Such was the aura about Bawa, who was bestowed with the prestigious Dronacharya award earlier last month. Strict, disciplined and with an unwavering persona, Bawa has spent his entire life spotting, training, guiding and nurturing many ordinary players who have gone on to scale great heights.
“It’s his life biggest moment. It’s very late but worth it,” said Walmiki.
By his own standards, Bawa admits being an “average” player who was just passionate about hockey. The journey kick-started when he would regularly go to Byculla railway colony to watch the Bombay Republicans play – a Mumbai-based hockey club established on 26th January 1963 that would train children for free, including many unprivileged ones.
Apart from Yuvraj Walmiki, the club has contributed players nearly 30 players to the national team including the likes of Gavin Ferreira, Jude Menezes, Viren Rasquinha, Adrian D’Souza and Devindar Walmiki – all who have made an appearance at the Olympics.
Mumbai goalkeeper Suraj Karkera, who featured at the 2018 Odisha World Cup and is part of the current Indian set-up, was also trained by him at the Children’s Academy in Malad.
Inspired by local player Munir Khan, Bawa’s interest in the game started gaining pace when he began to partner with Republicans founding member Balram Krishna Mohite, whose motive was to just promote the sport. During that time, Bawa left many jobs to pursue coaching. He continued leading the club even after Mohite’s death in 2005 before passing on the mentorship to one of his students owing to health issues.
“That’s the time I started gaining interest in hockey watching the Bombay Republicans play. I learnt slowly but by watching a lot of hockey, I gained that experience (talent spotting). All I am today is because of Mohite sahaab. Its been so many years and but the club is still going strong.
“I never had any dream to represent the country. I was not a player of that level, I was very average. But since I had an interest in the game, I learned about the techniques in 15-20 years. Now its been more than 40 years that I have watched hockey,” he said.
At 69, age has already caught up with Bawa – a short, scrawny middle-aged man with a toothless smile. He has a combined cataract and glaucoma operation coming up but he is not worried about that as much as hockey.
“I have a major surgery to be done, so I’m waiting to hear from the doctor. I have been facing these health problems but they all are age-related,” he said.
Former India skipper Viren Rasquinha remembers playing a tournament under Bawa for the Bombay junior team at Pimpri-Chinchwad.
“We were playing Tata’s and I was a very puny, tiny kid. People were asking Bawa, ‘Why are you allowing this kid to play a senior tournament? Bawa said this kid is exceptional, you just watch him.’ I made a mark at that tournament after playing really well. I am grateful for Bawa for giving me an opportunity when no one else would have at that time,” said Rasquinha.
“Bawa has been an immense influence on my life and my career. He was the first one to spot my talent and he also took me under his wing at Republicans. He taught me the importance of hard work, to push myself. And most importantly, he gave me a lot of self-belief which was important in the early stages of my career when I was 12-14. He made me train every single day and if I had not done that at that age and a few years had passed without me training regularly, then it would have been very difficult to catch up,” Rasquinha adds.
A strict disciplinarian
Bawa, of course, had his own working methods. He was a no-nonsense coach, tough as nails and one who wouldn’t compromise on using expletives when needed. Walmiki still fondly remembers his punishments.
“He used to make sure we all respected each other. He also used to scold and curse so much, I guess, I’m the player who must’ve taken most of the beatings from him. Ghar se maar maar ke mujhe practice ke liye le jaate the, kaan pakad ke kneel down karathe the. Maine toh bohot hi maar khaya unse. [He used to beat me and drag me to practice sessions and punish me. I took a lot of pastings.] He did all this to make sure that I become a good player one day.
“I and my brother (Devinder) owe a lot of our success to him. He played a major role in shaping us. We were just material and Bawa was the real cobbler. If Mumbai hockey survived today it’s only because of one man and that is Merzban Patel. I call him the Ramakanth Achrekar of Indian hockey,” said Walmiki, who is currently playing in the German Hockey League.
For Rasquinha, he was always more than a coach.
“He shouts, screams and gives gaalis. But he does that out of love. He is your friend once the training sessions are over, but when they are on, he wants you to be serious and work hard,” he said.
Walmiki says Bawa would never miss any training season at any cost, carrying his formal clothes to practice sessions even if he had to head out for any occasion.
“I don’t know what he liked so much about the ground. He is mad for hockey. His condition is still severe today, he cannot walk properly, his vision has been affected but he makes sure that he’ll come to the ground every day. I and my brother don’t get to hear bad words from him anymore but we still tell him, ‘Bawa sir, we miss your bad words’,” he said.
The softer side
Bawa also had a personal touch. He formed a good relationship with his students, would feed them on his own expenses to ensure they never went back home from practice sessions on an empty stomach and was always in touch with their parents.
“In 1999, when I started playing hockey, after every practice he used to get me one 5 rupees Parle-G biscuit packet and used to treat us tea. I have been playing hockey for 20 years but at least 10-12 years during the initial stages of my career he helped me a lot,” Walmiki said.
What stood apart in Bawa from other coaches was his unique eye for spotting talent. He was well aware of the nitty-gritties of the game.
“No matter how bad some students were, I always used to play them. My role was to supervise but it also depended on how the students practiced and worked hard. Mere coaching mein aisa kuch khaas nahi tha. [There was nothing special in my coaching]. More than a coach, I was a mentor.
“I watched more than 500 matches, so it’s from that experience that I can judge if a player will progress or not depending on the way they run. A player should first be an athlete then a player. He should run properly. It all depends on your running, so whichever player runs well, it’s easy to develop them,” Bawa explained.
Comparing the state of hockey back in his days to the present, Bawa laments the lack of proper infrastructure in what he feels, is curbing the development of the sport in India.
“Where do players many play hockey today? Hockey equipments are costly so most of the poor kids can’t afford it. That’s why hockey is so behind today in our country. Hockey is a game played mostly by them (the poor), the upper-class and the middle-class families don’t have much interest.
“We don’t have proper infrastructure and facilities in hockey. It should exist in every state but even in Mumbai, we still don’t have it. We need residential academies like the ones in Punjab,” he stressed.
On a personal note, Bawa describes hockey as an escape from all his problems. That’s what keeps pushing him to get to the field every day, the reason why he sacrificed everything in his life till now.
“Never once did I think of leaving the game. There is still so much interest and passion that I’m ready to sacrifice everything. When I step on the field, all my problems step aside. That’s the impact hockey has had on my life. Jab tak mera haath pair chal raha hai tab tak jo kaam hai, wo karte rahunga. [I will continue doing my job till my hands and legs are working fine.] Till the time I’m alive, I will continue to spot talent,” he concluded.