The move began with Vivek Sagar Prasad receiving a pass with his back to the Argentine goal, metres away from the Indian ‘D’ and with Ignacio Ortiz, a nearly six-foot tall midfielder, charging in. Two other Argentine players waited to pounce on the slightest of mistakes Prasad would make.
The tiniest player on the field (at 5-foot-3), though, showed that despite all the fuss over physique, there’s no substitute for quick feet in hockey. He took half-a-step to his right, and with a slight shuffle, changed his direction to left. Ortiz bought the dummy and went the wrong way, giving Prasad enough space to calmly pass to defender Birendra Lakra.
Ten passes, a weaving through the middle by Hardik Singh, and half a minute later, Lalit Upadhyay finished the intricate move that involved seven players with a stunning team goal that involved an uncharacteristically patient build-up and started with a seemingly defensive pass by Prasad.
India eventually won the game on Sunday 3-0 but, although encouraging, results months before the Olympics can often be deceiving as India have experienced before the London and Rio Games.
Upadhyay’s goal, because of the build-up, offered a glimpse into what the team had been working on during their year-long absence from the international scene owing to the pandemic. The other talking point from the weekend was Prasad, who has finally started showing his much-talked about skill-set, based on which he became the second-youngest player ever to represent India three years ago.
Wrong-footing the opponents, as he did with Ortiz, has been Prasad’s trademark since he started playing; in fact, that is how he impressed Ashok Kumar, son of the legendary Dhyan Chand and scorer of the goal that led India to its sole World Cup triumph in 1975, during a local tournament in Akola in 2014.
In Buenos Aires last weekend, however, he showed a wider range of his abilities during the Pro League matches. He glided past the burly Argentines as if they did not exist, played the right passes and showed control and subtlety in the midfield. He reminded everyone why he was touted as one of India’s biggest prospects, before getting lost in the transition to seniors.
Jude Felix, who coached Prasad when he was with the junior team not too long ago, says the midfielder looks primed to fill the creative void that exists in the team at the moment. “We don’t have many creative players in the team, especially the midfield,” Felix, a Dronacharya award winner, said. “Manpreet is more of a robust defensive midfielder; Chinglensana has a tendency to play back passes… Vivek is the creative spark that is right now missing in this team.”
Prasad is a centre-half, a position where India’s current captain Manpreet plays, and former skipper Sardar thrived in. Comparisons, therefore, become inevitable. More so when, as a 17-year-old, he was thrust into the limelight after being chosen ahead of Sardar for the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games.
At the time, his attack-mindedness impressed the coaches: Sardar was getting slower; Manpreet, though solid in the midfield, was more defensive as Felix pointed out; Prasad’s first instinct was to pass forward. But Prasad, who is the second-youngest player to represent India, mysteriously underperformed in matches despite doing most things right during training.
“David John (the former High Performance Director) spoke to him and tried to understand his situation. Sometimes, it gets overwhelming for a young player so it was important to remain patient with him,” one of India’s selectors said. “He looks more settled in the team now, maybe that is why he is playing with confidence which was lacking before. These two matches should improve him even more.”
Felix said the position Prasad plays in is important, given that most of the attacking moves pass through a centre-half while at the same time, there is defensive responsibility because even a tiny error could expose the defence. It remains to be seen, though, if the recent good displays will be enough for Prasad, named International Hockey Federation’s Rising Star for the year 2019, to make the 16-member team for the Olympics.
“From a long-term perspective – Prasad is only 21 – he has to evolve. Right now, he has the skill and the vision, but he needs to improve his technique, like taking the ball on the run, to become even better,” Felix says. “This is a crucial stage for him; either he will need a coach who tells him to do certain things, or he will have to self-learn.”
A former India captain expressed concerns over his short stature, fearing he could get rolled over by stronger midfielders. But Felix isn’t worried about that. “He makes up for that with his speed and quick feet. He can wrong-foot players easily.”
As he did with Ortiz. Whether he can produce more such performances consistently, though, remains to be seen.