It all began in Sundargarh!

As Odisha capital Bhubaneswar readies to host the Men’s Hockey World Cup 2018, the game is the flavour of the season in the state.

After retiring, former India captain Dilip Tirkey became the poster boy for Odisha hockey. He was elected to the Rajya Sabha as a Biju Janata Dal nominee in 2012.   -  The Hindu Photo Library

Prabodh Tirkey was fresh-faced and flamboyant. His elder brother, Ignace, the reserved one. Naveen Patnaik was in his first term as Odisha chief minister. It was the early days of Maoists making their presence known in remote pockets of north Odisha’s Sundargarh district adjoining Jharkhand.

Basking in the glow of being a part of India’s first men’s junior World Cup-winning team in 2001, the Tirkey brothers from the tribal population-dominated Sundargarh returned home to Odisha as heroes. Or so they thought.

Fewer than 50 people turned up to greet them when they reached Panposh, the venue of an artificial hockey turf in Odisha’s steel city Rourkela.

The brothers did not come from a privileged background. Prabodh cut to the chase. “Will the Odisha government not give us cash rewards and offer jobs like Jharkhand has done for Bimal Lakra?” he asked a journalist.

Lakra was their teammate at the junior World Cup. The brothers had returned home via Ranchi, where they saw him get a rousing reception and an offer of rewards from the Jharkhand government.

The journalist had no immediate answers for Prabodh because there were no immediate announcements from the Odisha government to acknowledge the feat.

That was then. The Odisha government and Patnaik, who has been chief minister uninterrupted since 2000, have changed.

The change was gradual, as Odisha woke up to the heroics of its players, which inevitably attracted wide media coverage, including attention for Sundargarh. The district soon acquired a glowing label — the cradle of Indian hockey.

Official recognition eventually came the way of Ignace and Prabodh, and scores of young boys and girls from Sundargarh who shone on the national and international hockey stage. The district has produced more than 60 junior and senior international players.

Now, as Odisha capital Bhubaneswar readies to host the men’s hockey World Cup, the game is the flavour of the season in the state.

It is impossible to miss the billboards, hoardings and advertisment blitzkrieg around the city, and the social media push through hashtags such as #HeartBeatsForHockey. Actor Shah Rukh Khan and music maestro A. R. Rahman lending their talent to the event has added to the sheen.

Odisha has over the years showcased an ability to walk the talk on hockey. In 2014, it became the only state to own a team in Hockey India League, the Kalinga Lancers.

The state hosted the 2014 men’s hockey Champions Trophy and the 2017 men’s hockey World League Final.

Earlier this year, Odisha decided to sponsor the Indian hockey team for the next five years. Patnaik called it “Odisha’s gift to the nation.”

In the home stretch for the World Cup, most of the tickets for the matches, to be played at the 15,000-capacity Kalinga Stadium, have been sold out. “Expect full houses,” said R. Vineel Krishna, Odisha’s director of sports and youth services.

To understand Odisha’s hockey journey to becoming a hockey hub, the story has to start from Sundargarh.

Prabodh readily admits it’s “a very different Odisha” now than in 2001, when he wondered if the state would reward him.

“Hockey has much more recognition now. People know us, respect us and talk about the game,” said Prabodh, who works for Air India in Bhubaneswar.

Such hockey talk was earlier Sundargarh’s domain. The oral history of the district credits Christian missionaries for introducing the game in tribal regions.

Delhi-based apparel and fashion accessories designer Paulson Toppo, a proud tribal, said, “The game not only took root, it seeped into the DNA of our people. In remote Sundargarh villages, children shape hockey sticks and balls out of tree branches and it’s game on. We tribals have very high levels of endurance and are naturally athletic. We are born for this game.”

Toppo, who grew up in Rourkela, however, pointed to a quirky facet in Sundargarh’s hockey talent pool. “We rarely produce strikers of note. All our big names are primarily defenders. I have heard people saying it is because tribals are simple by nature and lack the cunning to be goal-poachers.”

Winners of a rural hockey event, popular in the region as ‘Khassi’ tournament, at Bhawanipur in Odisha's Sundargarh district with their prize, a goat. Several such ‘Khassi’ matches are held across the tribal pockets and are a huge draw.   -  Biswaranjan Rout

 

While such a contention may not stand up to scientific scrutiny, it is a fact that some of the biggest names from Sundargarh in Indian hockey, such as Dilip Tirkey, have been defenders.

Sundargarh had a hockey legacy and Dilip, a former captain of the Indian men’s team, made it formidable.

After calling time on his international career, Dilip became the poster boy for Odisha hockey and a media magnet for Patnaik’s ruling Biju Janata Dal, which sent him to the Rajya Sabha in 2012.

In the last decade, the Odisha government has consciously worked to develop Bhubaneswar as a sports hub towards which talent must flow to flourish.

An effort to popularise hockey beyond Sundargarh is what excites the game’s lovers, none more so than Raju Kant Saini, a coach of SAIL Hockey Academy, Rourkela.

“The state should seize this moment and attract youngsters from other districts to expand the game,” said Saini, who has had a ringside view of Odisha hockey, having landed in the state from Meerut as a young goalkeeper in 1992. “There are takers for hockey beyond Sundargarh. I have coached players from Cuttack who have gone on to do well and land jobs on hockey merit.”

The state’s sports and youth services director, Krishna, agrees. “We will be promoting hockey in other parts. To create champions, we are establishing high-performance centres in partnership with Tata Steel and Tata Trusts,” he said.

“We are spreading our sports infrastructure by setting up four satellite stadiums with world class infrastructure in Cuttack, Berhampur, Sambalpur and Rourkela.”

Incidentally, the hockey talent pool of Sundargarh is in line to get state support of a magnitude not seen anywhere across the country. In the run-up to the World Cup, the chief minister announced that all blocks in Sundargarh will get artificial hockey turfs.

The district has 17 blocks, so the math is simple. Add the 17 proposed hockey turfs to the existing six (not counting one that an education institution has) in the state, Odisha will unarguably become home to the highest cluster of pitches for the game in the country.

Now, that seems to be putting money where the mouth is.