Olivier Hortensius was charging towards the Indian goal; 2-0 up and moments away from the first-half hooter, another Dutch goal would have surely put the game beyond India’s reach.

Amir Ali guided India into junior hockey World Cup semis

But the diminutive but fast Indian defender Amir Ali had other plans. The 19-year-old rushed towards Hortensius, made a brilliant tackle and halted Netherlands from increasing the lead.

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That move provided the impetus India needed to produce a spectacular come-from-behind victory to outwit powerhouse Netherlands 4-3 and enter the semi-finals of the FIH Junior Men’s Hockey World Cup in Kuala Lumpur on Tuesday.

After Timo Boers (5th min) and Pepijn van der Heijden (16th) put Netherlands 2-0 up via two penalty corners, Aditya Lalage (34th) and Araijeet Singh Hundal (35th) levelled the contest in the third quarter. Hortensius (44th) put Netherlands ahead once more before Sourabh Kushwaha (52nd) and skipper Uttam Singh (57th) put India in front for the first time, three minutes from the final hooter.

But that’s not where the contest ended. The Dutch earned six successive PCs in the final two minutes of the quarter-final at the Bukit Jalil National Hockey Stadium. Once again rushers Amir and Rohit came to India’s rescue, thwarting any chance of the Dutch drawing level and pushing the match into a shootout, guiding India to their third consecutive semi-final.

An emotional Amir was beaming over a video call from the Malaysian capital after India’s victory. “Hockey has given me everything. It is unbelievable that my hands that now hold the hockey stick once held the tools to repair motorbikes,” recalled Amir.

The son of a bike mechanic, Amir has risen from the streets of Lucknow to make the national team which now has the chance to attain glory, India having won the title last at his hometown in 2016.

“My father is a bike mechanic. He doesn’t have a shop, just a toolbox which he carries whenever he gets a call to repair bikes. I used to help him. With only one breadwinner, we pretty much had a hand-to-mouth existence. Whatever my father earned was spent for the daily ration to feed our family of seven,” said Amir.

Growing up in Hazratganj, neither Amir nor his family knew much about hockey, but the youngster was fascinated watching his mohalla boys play. Initially against their son ‘wasting time’ on a sport, Tasauvar Ali and his wife finally gave in to the demand of their eldest son, who also took younger sibling Taruq to play hockey.

Both brothers started learning the basics of the game under renowned Sports Authority of India (SAI) coach Rashid Aziz Khan at the KD Singh Babu Stadium, which was walking distance from his home. From 2011 to 2015 Amir played under Khan. “Even during this period, after practice I’d go help my father fix bikes before we both returned home,” said Amir.

His father and Khan realised that Amir belonged to higher echelons of hockey. While his father borrowed money to ensure Amir had the necessary equipment to continue his pursuit, Khan sent his ward to the Saifai Sports College in Etawah, known for sports in Uttar Pradesh. Amir honed his skills and kept getting better, playing in school and local events followed by state level tournaments.

In 2019, Amir had a chance to return home when he trialled for SAI Lucknow. Impressed with his defensive skills, discipline, fitness, speed and the ability to adjust his game, the defender was selected and was back training under Khan for another three years.

It was under Khan that Amir realised his potential. He first guided Air India to runners-up at the 2020 Senior Nationals before guiding Uttar Pradesh to successive titles in the 2021 and 2022 Junior Nationals, earning a deserved call-up to the junior national team.

Amir made a golden international debut too when he helped India win the 2022 Sultan of Johor Cup before winning gold at the Junior Asia Cup in June. Now, Amir wants to help India win gold in Malaysia, the next step for which is the clash against six-time champions Germany in the semis on Thursday.

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