Commonwealth Games 2018: Inspired by Arjun Halappa, India's SV Sunil looks to conquer Australia
Speed is what personifies this Olympian and Arjuna awardee on the pitch and he is arguably one the fastest players in world hockey.
His guile and artistry comes to the fore inside the opposition 25-yard line where he dribbles, dodges and uses clever dummies. The effect is hypnotic and before the defenders can even decide whether to lunge, tackle, or shadow him with a grounded stick, the ball finds it's way into the net.
The 28-year-old forward from Karnataka hails from a small village in picturesque Coorg, which has nurtured great hockey talent. Former Indian international Arjun Halappa and the legendary BP Govinda were born and bred here. The village is Sowmarpet.
A proud son of this village is Indian hockey international, Sowmarpet Vitalacharya Sunil.
It was indeed befitting that the entire Indian hockey team paid a visit to Kodagu recently, which is considered to be the nursery of hockey talent in South India. The occasion was Sunil's wedding reception and needless to say, the hockey-loving residents soaked in the atmosphere with relish.
SV Sunil has been an integral part of the Indian team since 2007. He witnessed the dark days of Indian hockey early in his career with India failing to qualify for Beijing 2008. Several coaches were inducted into the system since, and left our shores in a short span of time, dejected and disillusioned.
The Karnataka forward weathered the storm, however, and through sheer hard work backed up by unmistakable talent survived the tumultuous changes. He has reaped the rewards by retaining his place in a resurgent team, now ranked sixth in the world.
As the team prepares for the Commonwealth Games, Sunil is a vital cog in India's attack.
After he goes through his paces in the Bangalore camp, overseen by the coaching staff, the veteran sat down on the turf to share, with Sportskeeda, a wealth of information about the past and present of Indian hockey, as only he can.
'Discipline off the field is just as important'
Sportskeeda: Firstly, congratulations and wish you a long and happy married life on behalf of Sportskeeda.
There are lots of juniors who have just made their transition into the senior side. You, on the other hand, have been there for a much longer time. It was in 2007 that you made your debut and Indian hockey was going through one of its worst phases. We failed to qualify for the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Now, India is ranked 6th in the world. What would you attribute the huge ascent to - better players or better coaches?
SV Sunil: Players were really good then. The players are good now as well. The system, however, has undergone a transformation since. It is not that Indian coaches aren't good. Foreign coaches, however, have upgraded the level of the game for sure. They continued the Indian hockey style but took it a new level altogether.
We started following a daily routine under the foreign coaches. We have a systematic daily schedule to follow. There are things to do on the field and off the field as well. Training, massage, team meetings, rest, everything is scheduled. Team bonding activities also started. The results are there for all to see. We know now exactly what do when and what not to do.
SK: You have worked with more coaches than perhaps any other player. There was Jose Brasa, Micheal Nobbs, Terry Walsh, Roelant Oltmans, and now Sjoerd Marijne. How did you manage to adapt to all their varied styles?
SVS: If you wish to retain your position in the team, you have to fall in line with the coach's instructions. Different coaches have different methods and training styles. For instance, Roelant Oltmans' style was completely different from Sjoerd Marijne's. It is difficult in the beginning to adapt to a new style.
We start changing our game slowly. If we don't, we cannot retain our place in the side. You must know for sure, there is a core group of 33 (probables). That means for every available position, there are three or four players competing. Hard work is imperative. Hockey skills and fitness are equally essential.
Discipline is essential off the field just as it is essential on the field. It makes a huge difference for the team if you are not disciplined off the field. Adapting to change is a necessity.
'Hanging on to the ball is dangerous'
SK: What is the single biggest difference, according to you, between Oltmans' and Marijne's coaching methods?
SVS: Marijne wants us to play very fast, one-touch hockey. We used to hang on to the ball a wee bit before. That is not something he likes. As soon as we get the ball, he wants us to release it to the player who has space in front. That player should also be able to anticipate that the ball is headed his way.
He also likes fast counter-attacks. We have some very quick forwards. Defence and mid-field too is good but he feels since speed is the forte of our forward-line, we should attack and score as many goals as we can (with one-touch hockey of course).
SK: Among all the speedy forwards, you are without doubt the fastest. You love long sizzling runs, dodging past multiple defenders. It is spectacular and exciting to watch. You look like you enjoy it thoroughly. Did you find it tough to curb your natural instincts and play one-touch hockey?
SVS: It is important to read the situation. One-touch hockey is good in the midfield. In counter-attacks, however, long runs are essential. In modern hockey, hanging on to the ball is dangerous. The game is so quick that before you realise it, the defender would have stolen the ball from you.
Marijne's aversion to hanging on to the ball for too long is not without reason and is for the good of the team. We may feel we are smart and can dodge our way ahead but top teams like Australia and England indulge in group tackles and steal the ball which is bad for the team.
SK: Sunil, when you made your debut in 2007, you had stalwarts in the team like Prabhjot Singh and Rajpal Singh among others. Who helped you the most and made you feel comfortable?
SVS: Dileep bhai (Dileep Tirkey) was also there. The players who helped me the most were Tushar Khandker and Shivendra Singh. They were like brothers to me. I was close to the others too but the two of them were special. Raghunath was there too and so was Vikram Kanth.
My first tournament was the Asia Cup which was a big tournament. I was a bit nervous, but I was made to feel comfortable by the ones close to me in the team. I am in touch with them to this day. There were great players then. I was fortunate to play with Dileep bhai, Rajpal bhai, Sardar Singh was there too. Bimal Lakra was another good player then. I learned a lot from all of them.
'It was my dream to be honoured in an open jeep like Arjun Halappa'
SK: At what stage in school did you feel that you had enough talent to pursue hockey as a career?
SVS: I don't remember the year, but I started very early. I used to play with wooden sticks in school. Hockey is played a lot in Coorg and in my village, Sowmarpet. There is a club there called Blue Star Hockey Club where three or four tournaments are played every year. I was gifted a hockey stick once and I started playing seriously.
Arjun Halappa is from village. The first time he returned after playing for India, he was taken around the village in an open jeep. This is a tradition in our village. Any hockey player who returns after his first international tournament is honored in an open jeep and that was my dream too.
With the grace of God, the dream came true. When I returned after my first international (Asia Cup) I was taken around the village in a jeep with people cheering.
Govinda sir (BP Govinda) is also from my village. I wanted to become like him. So, I joined the hockey club. If I didn't attend training even for a single day, the senior players used to come home and beat me. I was scared of them, but it is only because of them that I have reached where I have.
'The system is transparent now'
SK: The Indian team which played in the Azlan Shah Cup was effectively India's second team. This seems a positive move, but do players feel insecure about being selected for the next tournament with so much competition?
SVS: It is not about being insecure. Players, to an extent, do need to have some fear. I have to be fearful that there are three others waiting to take my place. That will make me perform better. If I know that even though I am not performing, I am irreplaceable because there is no one to take my place I will become complacent.
Competition is necessary to take your game to the next level. Junior players rarely used to get a chance to play in international tournaments. They used to be stuck in camps for three to four years with no chance to play for the national team. Now, that has completely changed.
If you play well, you will get a chance now. Practice sessions are filmed. Everything is clear and visible. The system is transparent. I feel it is a very positive step. Juniors need confidence.
SK: What do you feel about India's prospects are this season? We are ranked 6th. Do you think we can reach the final of the Commonwealth Games?
SVS: Our target is clear and that is gold. Rankings are just a number. The team that plays better on the day will win. We recently beat Germany who are ranked higher than us. No matter which tournament, our aim is gold. You can ask anyone in the team. They will all tell you the same thing. Our aim is to be No. 1.
'We can beat Australia in Australia'
SK: Since you mentioned gold, do you think we can beat Australia in Australia? (In the CWG?)
SVS: Definitely, we can. From the time I joined the team, we have been constantly improving against Australia. Before, we used to lose by huge margins, but the margins then reduced. We beat Australia in their backyard in the Test series in 2014.
We also beat Olympic champions Argentina in Rio. We were the only team to beat the eventual gold medalists. We can beat any team and will aim for medals. We need good wishes of the public and hockey fans. The team is a perfect balance of youth and experience.
SK: We heard that you had taken the players for your wedding reception to Coorg. What was the occasion like?
SVS: I took the permission of the coach, high-performance director, and Hockey India. For the first time, the entire Indian team was in Coorg. The people in my village were thrilled. They love hockey and the team has a huge fan following there.
SK: We also heard that you like watches and shoes and have a huge collection of both. When and how did you develop such an affinity for watches and shoes?
SVS: (Laughs) That is true. It started around seven to eight years ago. Before that, I was not in a financial position to purchase such items.