We had stepped into the bad world of Senior School where Class VI was the junior most class. We lived every moment of ours in virtual fear of offending some senior, knowingly or unknowingly, and the whole batch getting to bear the brunt as a lesson. It sure worked. We did make mistakes, but never ever repeated them. One thing was engrained in us. We had to be good at atleast one thing. Academics were excluded from that list. The list included extra curricular activities only. One needed to be in either of the sport teams, debate, declamation and dramatics or had to be an athlete to be able to garner points during Annual Athletic Meets, inter house and inter school. Topping the chart was a team member of a respective hockey team - class, house and school. A big struggle was to get into a hockey team, a bigger survival battle to remain in the team. The biggest fight ofcourse was to be in the playing eleven. There was no mercy for average play.
I remember picking up the hockey stick for the first time in my life. The would-be players were short-listed rather easily. One needed to score a goal from the top of the D with the goal keeper trying to save it and then needed to stop a super speedy ball coming your way, hit by a player. The ones who were able to do both were called in and the others, brushed aside. We were asked to report at 0500 hours next morning for our first practise session. Now, did that feel good? Everyone started dreaming of wearing the school color, warming up, running around and playing hockey for the school. The thought changed the way we walked after that day. We had become special. The challenge started only now. (Boys were divided into four categories depending on height and weight and a multiplying factor. We were in the lightest category, ofcourse.)
Mr. B N Khanna (he was nick named Shera, because of his temper) was announced as our coach. Mr. Khanna was never a popular teacher. He was not a celebrated coach either. He was a stylish man, though. He was known more for being the only teacher on campus who smoked, boozed and lived life like a tiger. Hence, his nick name. He had a real short temper too. But he was an irresistible personality. Boys used to wait for his history classes where he would enact the Moghul onslaught with the sound of the sword coming out of its scabbard, blood splashing and elephants and horses roaring all at one go. He was a live wire when describing ancient and medieval history. Modern history was not his forte.
True to his image, the moment we arrived on the field, sharp at 0500 hours, his first sentence was, “I will make life miserable for you.” He sure did. The first one week, we did not even touch the hockey stick. Everyday was a fixed regime of running 10 lapses around the field as warm up. It was followed by standing exercises, followed by sit ups and other exercises, finally rounding up with another 5 lapses of the hockey field. The last 10-15 minutes were theoretical sessions about rules, regulations and general information about the game. We used to wonder, whether what people say about him is true. If he really knows how to play hockey!
One day, after an hour and half of rigorous physical exercises when we were physically tired of the exercises and mentally getting tired of not playing hockey, Mr. Khanna asked the team to line up on the 25 yard line with our sticks. He asked everyone to keep the ball on the line and carry it on the line from one width of the field to the other. This was simple, we thought. Of the 15, none of us managed to keep the ball on the line the whole width. That’s when he smiled for the first time. With the sly smile of his face, he commented, “If you cannot do the simplest thing of carrying the ball in a straight line, how do you think will you play hockey?” We had no answer. But I guess, he realized we were not enjoying the sessions. He arranged for a friendly match with another amateur team. We were out of our breaths by half time, finally losing miserably and worst of all became a laughing stock for all. He had retorted, “If you can stick on the field for 70 minutes without the ball; with the ball on your stick, you can do anything.”
He may be smoking hard and boozing regularly. There were days, when some of us were late by a minute or so for our 0500 hours practise session. He was the first person waiting for us to arrive, everyday. We would get tired straining on physical exercises. He completed all exercises along with us and would be raring to go. After a while, though, we were running out of patience with no sight of playing hockey. Just then, he started the basic dribbling sessions. From that day, everyday there was something new added onto our training schedule. But the one and a half hour physical drill was a constant. Before our first official match representing our school, Mr. Khanna made us play against the next senior category team in school. Although, we lost the game, Mr. Khanna was visibly pleased. From the first game itself in the tournament we knew we were a better team. Although, we lost the first game, we had made no changes in the playing eleven through the 70 mins and still had fresh feet. Through the tournament we gained in confidence, in points and popularity. No one in school had expected us to reach the finals. We did. The whole School walked up the venue to watch us play. In the finals, we played the same team who beat us in the first game. We disappointed everyone, most of all, ourselves. What we gained were, fit mind and fresh feet.
What Mr. Khanna taught us during those training sessions remains with us still. The importance of being fit; playing as per a plan and presence of a super star never ensures a win. Respect the value of the other to ensure your win. In a team, all are equally important, even the reserves. And although, he never explicitly stated it, I think he wanted us to learn more about life. Be healthy to think healthy, always have a back up plan and every individual has her/his bit to contribute. On her/his given day, anyone can become a super star.
I think that’s how super stars are made. There is a Shera behind each of them.
This piece is inspired by Chak De India, the movie. This is a dedication to Mr. B N Khanna, our hockey coach, who taught us a lot about life. Because, he knew, hockey was our life.
(One thing is for sure, we need to change our national game. It cannot be hockey. Not because we are no good at it anymore. We were, we are and we always will be a team feared by one and all. I feel, as a nation, we don’t care about hockey. We have stopped taking hockey as a game, forget as a national game. In one of the youth channels, a live question-answer round on the street brought out our ignorance. Out of ten people interviewed, seven did not know what our national game is!)