It is easy to see why Vivek Sagar Prasad is seen as a future India star. The midfielder has a good passing range, deceptive feints, comes out on top in one-on-one battles and has an eye for goal.
Having been a part of the senior team for just over two years, Prasad has seamlessly slotted into the side, which has a good balance of senior pros and up-and-coming stars.
The break in the international calendar following the coronavirus pandemic came at the wrong time for India and in turn Prasad. In the FIH Pro League, India’s last international assignment before sporting events across the world came to a grinding halt, the 20-year-old was one of India’s standout performers and held his own against top sides such as Australia, Netherlands and world champions Belgium.
He also added another feather to his camp when he was named the FIH Rising Star of 2019.
“It is a huge honour for me to have been recognised as one of the best upcoming players in the world,” Prasad told Scroll.in.
“When I was growing up, I never imagined even in my wildest dreams that I would be given such an award at such a young age. I am really fortunate to have been recognised by fellow players fans and the members of the media.
“It also tells me that I should continue to follow the same. I am always willing to give my 100% for the team, and that is what I look to do whenever I step onto the field.”
The reception he received from his teammates after winning the FIH honour is not something Prasad is likely to forget anytime soon.
“We were in Bhubaneshwar at the time and the chief coach [Graham Reid] had called us for a team meeting, and when I saw the cake and the backdrop with my name on it, I realised it was a surprise for me on having won the award.
“I remember everyone congratulating me and it was a moment that meant the world to me, because when you are complimented by your fellow players, you obviously feel really, really good.”
A career-threatening injury
Prasad has indeed come a long way over the past four years. Back in 2016, a collarbone injury nearly threatened to end his career before it could take off. While tussling for the ball, an opponent had inadvertently hit him with his stick and he needed a surgery and had to be kept in intensive care for almost three days. This also meant that he missed out on a place in Harendra Singh’s team that won the Junior World Cup in Lucknow that that year.
Prasad couldn’t even think of touching a hockey stick for months and admittedly, thought of the worst while recuperating in 2016-17. There were complicated procedures that he had to undergo to regain fitness. It was a frustrating wait.
“It was a really tough phase for me personally because it was a career-threatening injury,” Prasad said.
He explained his ordeal in what he has often described as the toughest phase in his career: “I remember I was playing a practice match in Bhopal, and happened to get into a collision, which saw me fracture my collar bone.
“At first, I was not informed by my family or my doctors about the extent of the injury, but later was told that I would take at least six months to recover. I was on the bed for four months and it was a really difficult time, but my family and friends helped me a lot in staying strong mentally.
“I was later told that there were also chances of infection which I had to avoid in order to play again, and that there was a 50% chance that I could play hockey again. It was difficult knowing there were chances I might not be able to set foot on to a hockey field ever again.
“However, I’m really glad that I was able to recover from it, and make it so far. That phase really made me strong mentally as well as taught me to value what I have – my good health, family and friends. I feel I became much more focused and mature as a human being.”
Prasad played like man desperate to make up for lost time once he was deemed fit enough to step on the field. In early 2018, the then-men’s coach and current women’s team coach Sjoerd Marijne made him the second youngest player at 17 years, 10 months and 22 days to play for India.
Ability-wise, there was little doubt that Prasad would go on to play for India. India’s 1975 World Cup-winner Ashok Kumar, the son of hockey icon Dhyan Chand, had handpicked a raw talent after watching the player during an age-group tournament.
Kumar thinks that Prasad has the potential to be a centre-half as good as former teammate Ajit Pal Singh and Sardar Singh.
“I do meet him [Kumar] when I go back home [Itarsi], and he always has some good insights to give,” Prasad said about his childhood coach and mentor.
“I am really happy and thankful to have someone like him whom I can go to whenever I have any doubts. I have not had the chance to speak to him about my progress but I know that he follows my game always, and wants to ensure that I fulfil my potential.”
Basking in the Reid era
Prasad’s game has found another gear with Reid taking over as head coach. The Australian clearly rates the midfielder highly and the results are there to be seen. The youngster also impressed with his composure, converting against Australia and Netherlands during India’s two penalty shootout wins in the early stages of the FIH Pro League.
Prasad lavished praise on the 56-year-old coach. “He is obviously a coach who likes to play attacking hockey, and he likes his team to show more intensity on the pitch, whether it is in a match situation, or in a practice session, and I think that is something which I really like, because it prepares you to do it consistently.
“I think most of our conversations have been about what all I can do from midfield to contribute to the team’s play, both in defence and in attack. He ensures that you understand your role properly in the team. He is very clear in the messaging that he sends to the players and is honest in his evaluation.”
International hockey may have been suspended till June at least but Prasad has already set his eyes on Tokyo next year. “Our targets have remained the same because we were preparing to do our best at the Olympics and achieve a podium finish, and we will again re-align our schedule in order to peak during the Olympics next year,” he said.
There will be little doubt that Prasad will be one of India’s focal points in the middle of the park as the men in blue aim to end their long wait to bag another Olympic medal in hockey.
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