When India take on Australia in the opening game of the Hockey World League Final, Amit Rohidas could be one of three Odisha players in the starting XI. However, this will only be his 36th appearance for the team -- nine years since making his junior debut in the U-18 Asia Cup.
Rohidas, 24, made his first official appearance for India, albeit at sub-junior level, at the U-18 Asia Cup in Myanmar under coach AK Bansal. With his drag-flicks fetching him seven goals, he became the star performer of the tournament.
Four years on, Rohidas made his debut at the junior World Cup in New Delhi and did enough to earn selection for Terry Walsh's Indian team at the first World League Final in January 2014. But due to competition in defence, India appearances dried up for Rohidas after 2015.
"The two-year gap still feels like a mystery. I don't know what went wrong during this time. I always believed that I would return, because Hockey India League (HIL) would give me an opportunity to impress with my performance," says Rohidas, who only returned to the Indian team during their summer tour of Europe earlier this year. The absence was hard to pin down on any one factor - his form had not dipped, there was no major injury, nor any reports of disciplinary issues with him.
One thing going in his favour was his consistent HIL form, keeping a tight back line, first for Ranchi and then for 2017 champions Kalinga Lancers. With both teams, he found inspiration in a midfielder who won Olympic golds for Germany in 2008 and 2012. "I played with Moritz Fuerste for five years and he kept telling us about how to improve and how to maintain oneself. I simply followed everything he suggested."
Born into a family of farmers in Sundargarh, who worked as daily-wage labourers when the harvesting season was over, young Rohidas was first enamoured with football and had Ronaldinho as his first idol. "The first sports equipment my father bought me was a football, and it was only later that I got into hockey. Growing up in a small place like Sundargarh, I never had any option for a sport other than hockey. Everybody used to play hockey, and I just followed what everybody else was doing," says Rohidas. "In our village, we used to have matches organised where a goat would be the prize. When we had our school vacations, we used to play hockey."
"I won't always be playing more games than someone else in defence. There's always a healthy competition and you have to give your best so that the coach has a good headache." Amit Rohidas
Former India captain Dilip Tirkey, who comes from the same district, would serve as inspiration for young Rohidas, and he enrolled at the government sports hostel in Panposh, Rourkela while yet to enter his teens. "The coach there taught me every basic skill of the sport. I have reached where I am today by steadily improving from that stage," says Rohidas. "There was no fixed position to begin with -- in my village I usually played as goalkeeper. When I got selected to the hostel, I wanted to play goalkeeper. But he told me that I was too short, and so he shifted me to right-out. As I kept playing, I switched to defence and have felt comfortable there ever since."
Rohidas recognises that though he has just had a successful outing with the Indian team at the Asia Cup, the return of Rupinder Pal Singh means coach Sjoerd Marijne will have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to defence in Bhubaneswar, with Harmanpreet Singh, Varun Kumar and Dipsan Tirkey also all capable of starting and taking penalty corners. Midfielder Chinglensana Singh can offer a sixth option for drag-flicks, but Rohidas welcomes the competition. "Someday someone else will play better than me. What matters is what the coach thinks is right -- I won't always be playing more games than someone else in defence. There's always a healthy competition and you have to give your best so that the coach has a good headache," he says.
Rohidas, who says the toughest parts of being away on national duty are getting to sleep and rest for longer periods and missing out on food cooked by his mother, looks forward to being home so he can give time to his parents. It might put him at ease this time in Bhubaneswar, where Odisha chief minister handed out cash prizes of INR 750,000 (approx. $ 11,600) each to Rohidas, Dipsan and five members of the women's team for winning the Asia Cup this year, in a program on Wednesday evening where sportspersons from across the state were feted.
The loudest cheers were reserved for Rohidas -- including many from adversaries from other nations who may have played with and against him in the HIL -- and the young man must believe that his time has finally come.