THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: By his own admission, India discard Ignace Tirkey is past his use-by-date. With a resigned look on his face, he gestures to his knees; in a wraparound. "It has been creating a lot of issues in the last couple of years. I was not sure whether I could even play in the National Games. I am able to run, but not as fast as I used to a few years ago," he says.
Though his reflexes have been decelerated by time, he still has that probing presence and the elusive "ball sense". Even now he telegraphs the intent of the opponent much before his fellow players and is always at the right place at the time. The interceptions, tackling and tapping hardly conceded the impression that he is labouring. Everything is accomplished with minimum fuss. "Yeah, I can't unlearn the instincts," he laughs.
But hidden beneath the merry exterior is a gnarled warrior who hasn't yet gotten into terms with the glaring inevitability that he is no longer the player he used to be. "Sometimes, when I watch the old footages, I get goosebumps. I wonder why I can't play like that now. I miss the dressing room and the team atmosphere. But I have to admit that I'm no longer the player I was and so I am not disappointed that I am not in the team. I would rather fade away unnoticed than bring shame to my country," he explains.
With a tinge of regret, he confesses he has relinquished the dreams of an India comeback. "Knowing my body very well, I know I 'll be a misfit in the team. There are better players now and they are playing well. Irrespective of whether you are playing or not, you feel happy when you see your team win. Though I'm up in the hills (he is with the Garhwal Rifles in Leh), I try to watch India's matches. My friends make fun of my serious disposition when I watch, but for me the game was always serious. After all, I have played some 250 matches for the country, so I'm bound to be a bit passionate about it." he says.
All the same, he wishes to play in the Hockey India League. "We didn't get clearance from the Services board. I don't know the exact reason, but we are pressing for it, and hopefully, next year I can play for some time. It's really exciting and one of the best things that has happened to the game in the countr y," he points out.
As an afterthought, he adds: "No, no, it's not the money part that I'm interested in, but the opportunity to play with international players. Earlier, we had the PHL (Professional Hockey League), and it was a great platform for all of us to improve our skills,' he reflects.
The quaver of his voice lifts when he goes on rewind mode, especially when he talks about that special goal against Pakistan in the 2003 Asia Cup. With the score squared 2-2, and only a minute and 27 seconds to go, Ignace clung on to a pass from Baljit Singh Saini, and bull dozed through a maze of Pakistani sticks with a solo dribble to belt the winner. "It was the best moment of my career. India-Pakistan matches always tend to be edgy affairs and to score the winner was special. All I remember is that pass from Baljit. I don't even remember how many defenders I beat. I just kept running on and my only focus was was the back of the net," he recollects. It is a memory, he says, he will take it to his grave.