With cases rising in Mumbai, Karkera opts to brave it alone at SAI Bengaluru

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When Hockey India (HI) gave the option to its men and women players stuck at the Sports Authority of India (SAI) centre in Bengaluru for more than 100 days to return home last week, almost all of the homesick players wanted to take the next flight out.

Mumbai’s Suraj Karkera, though, was an exception. The 24-year-old goalkeeper decided to stay back at the SAI campus after consultation with his parents, who thought it was simply not safe for their boy to return to one of the worst affected cities in the country in terms of Covid-19 cases.

Karkera bid his departing teammates who left in batches over the last weekend goodbye, leaving him to be the only hockey player in the sprawling SAI centre on the outskirts of Bengaluru. He has for company a few of the teams’ support staff including the men’s team head coach Graham Reid and some athletes who are confined to the campus since the nationwide lockdown in March.

Like everybody else Karkera too was eager to see his family after a long wait, but the spiralling positive cases in suburban Malad, where he resides, over the last few weeks forced him to think otherwise.

“I had a word with my parents about whether I should come back. They said it was not safe in our area, and that if I could manage here, then just stay put. So we decided mutually that it was better if I didn’t return,” Karkera said.

“It was a difficult decision as I’ve never been away from home for this long. But the well-being of my parents and myself matters the most.”

As much as it was a precautionary call for the youngster, it was also about the short-term impact on his hockey career should the worst fears come true. “If we fall sick and get the virus by any chance, we lose all the fitness. It takes a long time to get to that peak fitness; we have to start all over again. So I didn’t want to risk anything,” he said.

Having been isolated at the SAI centre since the men team’s camp began in the first week of March, Karkera isn’t completely alien to the lockdown life without any hockey. But now, he won’t even have his teammates around. HI plans to call the core group of players back for the camp on July 19.

“It will be more challenging now because being all alone is not easy. But my teammates have been calling me and staying connected. And I have been at the SAI centre for almost five years now, so I know most of the people here. Our chief coach and other support staff members are also here. We meet during breakfast, dinner and have little chats. So that’s nice,” Karkera, a product of Dronacharya awardee Merzban Patel, said.

Karkera plans to dedicate most of his time in Bengaluru to resting and reading motivational books. He goes for a jog within the campus in the morning, and does a bit of gym work in his room in the evening with the aim of getting physically stronger. Netflix and Amazon Prime are his source of entertainment, having just finished watching Seal Team.

“We haven’t been away from hockey for this long,” Karkera said. “This situation taught us how to be mentally stable even when we have absolutely nothing to do.

“You have to adapt to situations. This was a big challenge—how to maintain your physical fitness or dribble with your hockey stick while being inside a room. We adapted to that situation and everyone agreed to do their individual things. Everyone was responsible for themselves,” he added.

Karkera can’t wait to have his mates back in Bengaluru. He also hopes to make a quick dash home to his waiting parents and dog after a couple of months, if and when the situation eventually eases in Mumbai. “I miss the home-cooked food and just being around my family,” he said.

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