When the Wanderers Stadium was awash with pink as India and South Africa squared off in the first One-Day International on a festive Thursday (December 5) afternoon, it was a bittersweet moment for a two-time South African hockey Olympian and a fourth-generation equipment manufacturer from Jalandhar. For this unlikely duo, the moment was a significant one in a 12-year partnership as many South African players sported a pink helmet, one made in the oldest city in Indian Punjab.
It was on Friday last that Raghav Kohli was driving to the airport to make his way to South Africa, when he got a call from Rassie Pieterse to inform him that the December 5 ODI in Johannesburg would be one where the South African team took up the cause of breast cancer awareness. The manufacturing of pink helmets began immediately, and then they were popped in the courier and a day before the game, South Africa’s players had their protection.
The range of helmets, called Shrey, gets its name from Shrey Kohli, the youngest member of the TK Sports family business. On November 17 last year, an enthusiastic Shrey got on the road from Jalandhar to Kanpur, intending to deliver a batch of equipment personally to Suresh Raina and some other Uttar Pradesh players. He would never make it as he was killed in a car crash, at just 21, when his life in cricket was just beginning.
“We had to do something for Shrey, through which everyone would remember him for the rest of their lives. We wanted to do something good for him and that’s why this range of helmets named after him,” Raghav told Wisden India. “The helmet we make is probably the No. 1 helmet in the world. More than 60% of players use it.”
While Raghav is proud of the range, the tragic association with his brother is something that tinges any happiness with a sense of regret. “Shrey was very smart, used to deal with all the players. He was very close to Raina. The players loved him because he was a youngster, he got along very well with the boys,” remembered Raghav. “Because of that relationship, he used to go himself to deliver the equipment, though he could have easily sent it through someone else.”
Almost the entire West Indian team already sports the Shrey helmet, while in India, Yuvraj Singh has been an early adopter, with Rohit Sharma and Ravindra Jadeja set to switch.
This latest move is no gimmick, for the Kohlis have been in the sports goods business for four generations. The original brand, Beat All Sports, better known as BAS, was the willow with which both Sachin Tendulkar and Mahendra Singh Dhoni began their journeys in cricket. While the heritage is in place, the company has kept pace with modern demands, and fought off bigger corporates and their seemingly unlimited marketing budgets to bag the apparel rights to two Indian Premier League teams – Kings XI Punjab and the now terminated Pune Warriors India – and also work with Royal Challengers Bangalore as a compression partner.
While Raghav himself only played schools cricket, an uncle of his was a first-class cricketer and his cousin Taruwar Kohli was vice-captain of the Indian Under-19 team.
Raghav’s South African partner, Pieterse, has made a name for himself as a hockey international, and was in goal during the World Cup and Commonwealth Games in New Delhi in 2010 and also the Olympics in Beijing in 2008 and London in 2012, but he too once dreamed of playing cricket professionally.
“Growing up in South Africa, every kid wants to be a Springbok rugby player or a Protea cricketer. At school level, I always played rugby and cricket,” said Pieterse. “But I picked up a lot of injuries at rugby, didn’t really have the right build, so the doctors told me to give it up.”
During his time at the Tshwane Institute of Technology and the University of Johannesburg, where Pieterse studied human resource management, cricket gave way to hockey.
In South Africa, though, hockey isn’t popular enough for someone to play it professionally, so Pieterse needed to find a way to pay the bills. “As a sportsman, you need to have trust in the equipment that you use. And that comes when you see that the company you’re working with is constantly innovating and personalising things to work best for each athlete,” said Pieterse. “In that sense, I was a bit of an insider, given that I’m still playing.”
But that wasn’t the only reason why the partnership was forged. Pieterse, who has been to India seven times over the years in various capacities, treaded carefully to begin with. “I don’t think business is just about money. What was important to me was the people I were partnering were passionate about getting things right,” he said. “The energy that the Kohli family puts in convinced me to do this. I realised that this was not some Mickey Mouse business. There’s a lot of heritage, blood and sweat that has gone into these factories.”
On a day where an entire stadium took up a worthy cause at the Wanderers, one family in faraway Jalandhar had reason to be proud. A favourite son of theirs who was no longer with them was being remembered in a small but significant way.