On a cool winter evening, as more than 25 children of various sizes gather at the St Andrew’s school ground in Bandra, Mumbai, Conroy Remedios hurries on to the turf from the stands as soon as the clock strikes 6. His wife, Dipika Murty, is already there, directing the children into formations, drills and routines.

As Murty takes charge of the older lot of boys—and a couple of girls—Remedios moves along the sidelines, playing with the smaller children, who cackle as they dribble the ball, dressed in red caps and calling each other “Santa".

Remedios, 39, who has played for Air India, Western Railway and now Mumbai Customs—apart from representing Maharashtra—is the third-generation guide to an informal hockey club, Bombay Republicans, which has been around for over 55 years and has produced five Olympians.

Missing in action at St Andrew’s for the moment is the ubiquitous Marzban Patel, known in Mumbai’s hockey circles by the affectionate and sometimes reverential sobriquet of “Bawa", the man who has held the Republicans together for decades. Patel, now 68, and with a host of niggling ailments—including weakening eyesight—has taken over a mentorship role to Remedios’ and Murty’s more hands-on approach.

But Patel’s knack for spotting talent and errors in players’ performances remains invaluable for the club—as it does for the sport’s growth in Mumbai.

“He is a legend, and, if he says something, it has so much weightage. Even if it’s one line to the boys...," Murty almost thinks aloud.

Founded on 26 January 1963 (hence the name Republicans) by Balram Krishna Mohite, the Bombay Republicans trains children for free, encouraging them to practise and play a sport whose emotional connection with Indians has been waning over the years.

In the mid-1960s, when the rest of the world was catching up with India on hockey prowess, Mohite, whose only motivation was to promote the sport, made the Republicans his passion project. The self-funded endeavour achieved much beyond its limited means—over 30 trainees have played for India while Gavin Ferreira (1996), Jude Menezes (2000), Viren Rasquinha (2004), Adrian D’Souza (2004) and Devindar Walmiki (2016) played in the Olympics. One of the Republicans, Suraj Karkera, was a standby goalkeeper in the Indian squad for the World Cup in Odisha in November.

(Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint)

On a cool winter evening, as more than 25 children of various sizes gather at the St Andrew’s school ground in Bandra, Mumbai, Conroy Remedios hurries on to the turf from the stands as soon as the clock strikes 6. His wife, Dipika Murty, is already there, directing the children into formations, drills and routines.

As Murty takes charge of the older lot of boys—and a couple of girls—Remedios moves along the sidelines, playing with the smaller children, who cackle as they dribble the ball, dressed in red caps and calling each other “Santa".

Remedios, 39, who has played for Air India, Western Railway and now Mumbai Customs—apart from representing Maharashtra—is the third-generation guide to an informal hockey club, Bombay Republicans, which has been around for over 55 years and has produced five Olympians.

Missing in action at St Andrew’s for the moment is the ubiquitous Marzban Patel, known in Mumbai’s hockey circles by the affectionate and sometimes reverential sobriquet of “Bawa", the man who has held the Republicans together for decades. Patel, now 68, and with a host of niggling ailments—including weakening eyesight—has taken over a mentorship role to Remedios’ and Murty’s more hands-on approach.

But Patel’s knack for spotting talent and errors in players’ performances remains invaluable for the club—as it does for the sport’s growth in Mumbai.

“He is a legend, and, if he says something, it has so much weightage. Even if it’s one line to the boys...," Murty almost thinks aloud.

Founded on 26 January 1963 (hence the name Republicans) by Balram Krishna Mohite, the Bombay Republicans trains children for free, encouraging them to practise and play a sport whose emotional connection with Indians has been waning over the years.

In the mid-1960s, when the rest of the world was catching up with India on hockey prowess, Mohite, whose only motivation was to promote the sport, made the Republicans his passion project. The self-funded endeavour achieved much beyond its limited means—over 30 trainees have played for India while Gavin Ferreira (1996), Jude Menezes (2000), Viren Rasquinha (2004), Adrian D’Souza (2004) and Devindar Walmiki (2016) played in the Olympics. One of the Republicans, Suraj Karkera, was a standby goalkeeper in the Indian squad for the World Cup in Odisha in November.

It was coincidence or providence that, from the late 1970s, Mohite got a partner in Patel, who grew up in a railway colony in Byculla influenced by the fame of local hockey player Munir Khan. Patel led the club with his unique style of persuasive encouragement after Mohite’s death some decades ago, before taking a back seat himself due to health issues.

Over the last three years, the once fringe club, whose young trainees used to practise on the concrete tennis courts behind the stadium stands of the Mumbai Hockey Association (MHA, formerly Bombay Hockey Association, BHA), has been playing in the Super Division, the city’s highest club-level local league, making a strong transition to the mainstream.

The third generation of the Republican leadership is pushing the club from being a supplier of players for other teams to one that competes with the best on its own terms and hopefully builds on its roster of champions.

Local legend

Over the last few decades, the shuffling figure of Patel has been synonymous with the MHA. A small, slightly stooping, grey-haired man with a high-pitched voice dressed usually in loose shirts and tracks, Patel would be in the stands during matches, or just pacing around. It would often appear that he had no interest in the proceedings on the ground.

“He barely pays attention to any game," says Vijay Alphonso, part of the 1999 Bombay side that finished second in the Junior Nationals and a Republican boy from Amboli who last played for Air India in 2005. “(But) one second he sees you do something wrong and he picks on it. He has an uncanny knack of not watching and doing his own thing before suddenly perking up."

Though not formally trained or appointed to any coaching position (besides some schools), Patel’s eye for talent is considered unique, leading more renowned coaches to often seek his opinion. Coach Clarence Lobo recounts an instance from one of the national trials where Patel had taken two wards. Lobo remembers the then India coach asking Patel which of the two players was more gifted. Patel pointed and Adrian D’Souza was soon in the Indian team.

Seated in the changing room of the MHA early one evening, Patel admits he did not have a great knowledge of technique, and that he himself was an average “gully" player. But he could spot from a distance, in a move or two, whether a player had the requisite skills, or could be developed.

“It’s just instinct—by looking at the player, his running and body structure. Once you are a good runner, you can pick up any sport, not just hockey," says Patel.

“He can’t show you the basics of hockey but he can tell your defects," adds Remedios. “Next day, we would work on those shortcomings, and, after a few days, he would notice the improvement, and that used to be so motivational."

Currently around 30-35 boys from the Republicans play in the Second, Senior and Super Divisions of the MHA. Children walk in from far and wide, driven by the myth and the stories of generosity. It’s slightly different from the earlier days, when telephones were a luxury and Mohite and Patel would go door-to-door, encouraging parents to send their sons to practice.

“Mohite put his own overtime money, wife’s jewellery to run the club," remembers Patel, who also coaches at two schools: Children’s Academy (Malad) and Our Lady of Dolours Church (Marine Lines). “I joined him because I wanted to help—from little involvement, it became deep, and here we are. I have spent over 40 years at BHA. But his (Mohite’s) sacrifice.... He had a family, I don’t."

The cash-strapped venture would depend on moneylenders, juggling limited finances with dexterity or, as Patel says in jest, “Tereko topi pehnake, isko dene ka, isko topi pehnake, usko dene ka (Take from here and give there). For over 20 years, we ran the club like that."

Every practice session would end with bun-maska, tea or biscuits at the ramshackle MHA canteen—Patel ensured no child went home hungry.

“He is extremely generous," adds Alphonso, who moved to the US in 2015. “He would do a lot for boys who couldn’t afford it, including buying sticks, shoes, breakfast, tea, biscuits, which were big at the time."

His training—a combination of old-fashioned bullying, banter and ranting—kept children motivated. Yelling and shrill pronouncements kept them both scared and disciplined.

“My weapon was bad words, to be frank," admits Patel with a toothless grin. “But I used to love them too, so the boys wouldn’t mind."

“He would ask us to be happy, but he was very strict," says Walmiki, joining us after practice at the MHA. “If not, I would not have played at the Olympics."

“My routine would be to wear pads twice a day—once at college training and then at the BHA with Bawa," remembers D’Souza over email. “What I gained from those days was to train twice a day and to make myself comfortable with my goalkeeping gear."

Begin again

Remedios was part of a Mumbai side that finished second in the Junior Nationals—his teammates then included Rasquinha and Alphonso. A quiet but solid defender, he didn’t play for the country—by his own admission, there were better players at the time—but remained an asset in the local leagues.

A product of the Republicans, Remedios was playing football at St Blaise High School, Amboli, when Patel spotted him, handed him a stick and encouraged him to switch.

“Bawa kept us involved in the game. He saw to it that we would finish practice, eat, rest, and, again in the evening, go to BHA. There were no distractions like friends, phone or TV," recollects Remedios, who started coaching informally when he was 25.

For years, the Republicans would groom and train young children till other teams inevitably spotted and snared them. Almost every player who has emerged from Mumbai on to a bigger stage has gone through the Republicans.

When Remedios, an inspector with Indian customs, got access to the St Andrew’s turf, he thought it would be a good idea for the Republicans to finally build a team for the Super Division. The club has played in lower divisions, but competing at a higher level would encourage players to stay on rather than migrate to other clubs.

On their Super Division debut in 2016, the Republicans finished a creditable fourth, followed by a first-time qualification into the Bombay Gold Cup, with Remedios doubling up as player and captain.

Murty, who has played for India, got involved when she started watching practice sessions while she was pregnant with son Yohann, now 5. During one such session, she couldn’t resist and advised on a strategy that proved successful on match day.

“I can’t contain myself if the person is not playing good hockey," she says. “Dribbling and passing are not the basics of hockey, they are a by-product. Basic is the ability to handle the stick, hand-eye coordination, positioning yourself well and having a vision—you being in control of the situation rather than being controlled by the opposition or the ball."

The husband-wifeshare responsibilities based on expertise. Remedios works on defence, tackling tricky situations, while Murty, a goalkeeper, sees the ground in totality and provides a broader vision with formations, etc.

Over time, some of the financial liabilities have been taken care of by sponsors. For more than a decade, Godrej’s employees have run the annual Mumbai Marathon in support of three NGOs, including the Republicans.

Patel, who was apprehensive about playing the Super Division, fearing demoralizing losses to bigger teams, knows his club is in good hands. His ambition once was to start a Republicans academy—he knows it’s unlikely to happen. So will he ride quietly into the sunset?

“Why should I retire?" he asks vigorously. “Till I am moving about, I will keep going. I wonder what I will do if one day I can’t move due to old age."

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