It wasn’t the deeds of Indian hockey greats, as relayed on television screens, that captured the imagination of one of India’s fastest rising junior stars Mareeswaran Sakthivel. The seeds of his hockey dreams were laid in Kovilpatti, an industrial town in Tamil Nadu situated about 567 kilometers from the state capital Chennai and seemingly a million miles away from Indian hockey’s nerve centre.
The 20-year-old took to the sport simply because his father once had.
“I started playing hockey at the age of 12,” Mareeswaran, who is part of the Indian men’s junior 37-member core group, told the Olympic Channel.
“My earliest memories of the game revolved around my father. Even though he couldn’t play, he’d watch games from the stands, whether it was state or district games. Although hockey is not a popular sport in Tamil Nadu, it has quite a following in the town I come from.”
Though his father loved the game he couldn’t continue to pursue it due to the financial struggles. Mareeswaran’s parents work at a matchbox factory and his father is a machine operator there. Growing up, he didn’t have the resources to buy a hockey stick or shoes. Or have a television at home to beam India’s exploits on the TV screens.
“Managing finances at home was tough. To be honest, it is still is,” said the midfielder.
“I moved to SDAT’s [Sports Development Authority of Tamil Nadu] sports hostel five years ago, and they helped me buy shoes and a hockey stick. Previously, my parents had to borrow or take loans from people they knew for my expenses.
“We never had a television at home. We couldn’t afford one. As a kid, my only taste of hockey was accompanying my father to watch state or district matches in Kovilpatti. It was only after I moved to the sports hostel did I start watching matches on TV. That was where I saw games on television for the first time and understood what it takes to play for India.”
In school, Mareeswaran dabbled in athletics too, but hockey was the sport he felt most connected too. Though his father encouraged him to pursue hockey full-time, his mother was more eager for him to take the tried-and-tested academic way.
“I was just having fun with hockey initially, when I had played it in school. I guess, I got better at it over time,” he said. “I became serious about the sport only after SDAT took me under their wing.”
After putting in the hard yards the past few years, Mareeswaran’s breakthrough came last season when he was selected for the Tamil Nadu senior side and also represented the state at the Khelo India Youth Games Guwahati 2020.
Though his team didn’t quit make the knockouts, Mareeswaran’s performance at the Khelo India Youth Games was impressive enough for him to earn a call-up to the junior national camp.
Having taken the first step into the national set-up, the 20-year-old is determined to stay.
“I am 20 now. At the moment, I only focussed on the camp and the months ahead, where we have the Junior Men’s Asia Cup (July, 2021) and the FIH Junior World Cup (later this year),” he said. “I want to make the best use of the opportunities available right now and gradually make the step up to the senior team. Hopefully, that will happen soon.”