Overwhelming pressure at the highest levels of sport has destroyed many a career. Survival of the fittest is the name of the game. Physically and mentally. Many a time it's the bureaucratic bungling that has put to rest the high aspirations of talented sports persons. However, this is not a story of how and why things went wrong? It's about a sports personality who is ever determined to stay on top.
Meet Ashish Ballal, India's ace hockey goalkeeper. An Arjuna Awardee in 1996; Bangkok Asian Games Gold Medallist in 1998 and silver medallist in the 1994 Asian Games held at Hiroshima, Japan. Member of the Indian team at the Barcelona Olympic Games held in 1992. Captain of the Indian Airlines Hockey Team; and the list of his achievements goes on and on and on.
Three of his elder brothers were goalkeepers. Though they never made it to the highest levels of International hockey, Ashish's induction into the game was therefore, quite natural. Although he did play football and cricket while at school. He was a talent that was "spotted" at a junior level club game. Playing for a small club - Benson Hockey Club - they beat the then favourites, Karnataka State Police team in a league encounter. Ashish's performance in that game just couldn't be ignored. He was straightaway plummeted into the 1988 State Junior team to participate in the Junior Nationals held at Lucknow. He played so well that his inclusion into the Indian junior team was a foregone conclusion. From then on, there was no looking back for Ashish. A string of excellent performances at the junior level soon paved the way for his entry into the senior slot. And the high point of his career was when he was selected to take part in the Barcelona Olympic Games.
Strange are the ways of the powers that guide India's destiny into the competitive world of sports. The whole country celebrated the hockey team's recent victory at the 1998 Asian Games held in Bangkok. Ashish, in particular, came up with a stupendous personal performance. Instead of lauding this achievement, the Federation turned the tables on some of the players - Ashish included - for reasons best known to them and cast them into oblivion.
In the current scenario of International Hockey, "skill, stamina, speed and plenty of strength" are the essentials needed to stay on top, according to Asish. The astro-turf surface is such that it is highly injury prone. "One needs brains and perfection, because each and every position on the field is specialized today", Ashish adds. And goalkeeping? "It's a thankless job," Ashish is quick to point out. The "goalie" is the key element at crucial situations of the game.
Unlike Cricket, endorsements in Hockey are pathetically low. No doubt, companies sponsor the teams, but somehow, the money stops somewhere and never trickles down the line. That's the attitude towards modern competitive sport. A continuing controversy if ever there was one.
For this six-foot-two tall, 28-year old bachelor, who's been in Koramangala now for the last 10 years, the competitive spirit has not diminished one bit. He's confident that he'll make a "comeback". Talent and determination have this uncanny knack of showing up all the time. He's not like other sports persons, who must spend so many hours a day doing workouts. Ashish prefers a good, solid practice session to keep him fit.
Ashish believes in taking things in his stride. The important thing is winning. Isn't that every "goalie's goal?"