These days, they don't come more daring than Ashish Kumar Ballal. Stick in hand, padded, gloved, helmeted...yes. But to rush out and stop that hard hockey ball rocketing towards you from close range, one needs an uncanny sense of timing apart from the sharpest of reflexes and eye-sight.
In the twinkling of an eye, it could spell victory or defeat, disaster or glory Ashish has covered himself with glory at all levels of the game which reflects from his stupendous performances in the 'cage'.
His tremendous attributes saw the Karnataka custodian represent India in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, the 1990 World cup, Champions Trophy tournaments in 1989, 1993 and 1996, Asian Games in 1994 and 1998, and Asia Cup in 1989 and 1993.
After winning the Olympic Games hockey gold in 1980 in Moscow, which the major nations boycotted, Indian hockey had been looking for a major triumph. Supremacy in Asia itself was being questioned by Pakistan and the emerging South Korea. Thanks to Ashish, who was also the captain, doing splendidly, India reclaimed the Asian Games hockey gold in 1998 at Bangkok after a long gap of 32 years.
The pulsating final was pushed into the tie-breaker and Ashish's moment had arrived. He brought off two superb saves in the tie-breaker and India triumphed. His silver medal in the 1994 Asian Games at Hiroshima had turned into gold.
Hockey was in the family as three of his elder brothers were also goalkeepers at club level. But it was Ashish who rose to represent the country starting off from the Benson Hockey club which provided the platform for his meteoric rise to stardom.
"I became a goalkeeper because the goal keeping kit was always lying around and I used to always try out those equipment at home. We lived in Cambridge Layout and I also played football, cricket and volleyball. Football was my favourite sport. It is a very tough and competitive sport and I learnt those qualities as a boy. It helped me to imbibe them into my game in hockey as I advanced in my career," said Ashish.
According to him, a goalkeeper is always the most important and key element in a team. "If he does well, the others gain confidence. If he fails, no matter what the others do, it will become meaningless," said Ashish, who now runs the Ashish Ballal Hockey Academy.
"Today, a goalkeeper has more work to do as there is no offside in hockey and players are constantly positioned close to the goal inside the striking circle. So a goalkeeper is forced to play the part of a defender apart from being the last defender himself. As such, it has become very tough for goalkeepers today and they must be a lot more fitter," averred the outspoken Ashish, who is never afraid to call a spade a spade.
His family background and his father's insistence on being straightforward and independent, ensured that he also shaped his character around those traits. He says, "It helped me to become very determined and fight for what is right and just. I have always been very forthright and optimistic in my approach and this has helped me considerably in my personal life and professional career as well," said Ballal, who belongs to the Bunt community.
Ashish was never afraid to raise his voice against the administration in case of wrong doings. "The administration is in a shambles. The sooner they settle the IHF-HI issue, the better for the game in our country. Don't forget, hockey is our national game and everything concerning hockey must be an example to other sports. Sadly, it is the other way round. We are not even doing what others have done," said Ashish.
He accepts that at times, he feels depressed about the goings on. "I have tried my best to ensure that the interests of the players do not suffer. But then that must be the objective of those who are aspiring for posts and positions. If not, we will never progress and re-emerge as a hockey power," said Ashish, who was bestowed with the Arjuna Award in 1997.
While he always thinks and breathes hockey and have little time for anything else, apart from his coaching, he also tries to encourage his sons, Vansh and Yash. "They are interested in football, tennis, etc. but have still not come close to hockey. Just as my dad encouraged me and my brothers, I try to do my best for them as I would love to see them become good sportsmen as sports builds one's character," said Ashish who has all the support from wife Sahana as well.
According to him, these days, sports have become increasingly complicated with players not content with just playing. "They are trying their luck in other areas as well. Ultimately, one must not forget the fact that it is the sport which has brought them into the limelight," said Ashish.
He has also started a tribal hockey academy where he gets boys from tribal areas of Karnataka, Odisha, etc. and gives them all opportunities. "Many are talented and have even done well. I must give back to the game which has given me so much," said Ashish.