On January 17, midfielder Vivek Sagar Prasad could become the second-youngest Indian on record to represent the country in men's hockey if he takes the field against Japan in the 4-Nations Invitational Tournament in Tauranga, New Zealand. As a fan of chess, though, hockey was not even Vivek's first choice of sport growing up.
Only a chance encounter with a hockey coach while in school in his village of Shivnagar Chandon near Itarsi, Madhya Pradesh brought a pre-teen Vivek in contact with the sport.
"I was more interested in badminton and chess. We were told sometime in 2010-11 that those interested in playing hockey could join training, and that's how hockey came into my life. I would probably have taken chess more seriously, if my interest in hockey hadn't grown very quickly," Vivek says.
Should Vivek start against Japan, he would leapfrog the likes of BP Govinda, Latif-ur-Rehman, Sardar Singh and Ashok Kumar to sit behind drag-flicker Sandeep Singh in the list of youngest men's hockey players for India. Incidentally, it was 1975 World Cup winner Ashok who spotted the spark in the young midfielder and brought him into organised hockey in 2013.
"Mera poora shrey unhi ko jaana chahiye (all credit for where I am today should go to him). He spotted me when I was playing tournaments and offered trials at his MP Hockey Academy and that's where I first started playing hockey with any seriousness."
A steady growth in his game saw Vivek selected as captain for his maiden outing with the Indian Under-18 team at the Sultan of Johor Cup in Johor Bahru in October 2017. Vivek says he had to quickly block out the fact that it was his first India selection at any level, as well as his first trip outside India, as captaincy brought with it a lot of responsibility.
"All I thought of was that if I am the captain and play well, then the team will automatically do better," he says of a tournament where India won bronze. "We got 20 penalty corners but only converted two, while those teams only scored off PCs against us. If we had converted even half our opportunities, I know we would have returned with gold."
His performances as the left-sided midfielder fetched Vivek the Best Player of the Tournament award, and a call-up to the national camp, where he says playing alongside his idols has been full of lessons.
"For instance, Manpreet bhai tells me that if you play along the centre, then you have to look to your left and right as well. If you go forward (for attack), then you also have to drop deep when defending. Main thing is calling and communication, and seniors like Sreejesh bhai and Sardar bhai keep guiding me and rectifying my mistakes."
Selection for India must be a thrill, especially in a young group where Vivek is the youngest of four debutants alongside goalkeeper Krishan Pathak, midfielder Simranjeet Singh and striker Dilpreet Singh.
However, the joy of being selected for India for the first time has been subdued for the 17-year-old following a bereavement in the family. "Celebrations kam hi hongi kyonki abhi mere dadaji expire hue hain, tabhi bataya hai lekin zyada nahin bataya (the celebrations will be muted, because my grandfather just died recently. That's why I haven't told everybody about this)," says Vivek, adding that he only got to know of his selection only on Monday morning after a regular practice session at the ongoing camp in Bengaluru. "I only informed my brother. He has not played hockey, he is actually an engineering student.
"All I am thinking of is going there and giving my best, so that I can confirm my place in this team. And I will try to connect with everybody there."