Fascinating rise to fame

At his peak now, Dilip Tirkey has a few more years left in competitive hockey. Constant exposure and a willingness to imbibe new things have added polish to his approach.

S. THYAGARAJAN

ETCHING the career graph of an Adivasi lad from a remote hamlet of Orissa moving up the social ladder to become the captain of the national hockey team is a fascinating exercise. It is not easy to flinch from admiring the steady progress to stardom of Dilip Tirkey in the incomprehensible history of Indian hockey.

VINO JOHN

Call it destiny, or a coincidence, the fact remains that first Indian captain to the Olympics in 1928 at Amsterdam was an Adivasi — Jaipal Singh Munda. It is important to note that hockey in India has been inextricably linked to the inherent and often untapped Adivasi talent for decades.

Dilip Tirkey symbolises the quality and content of a whole generation of Adivasi stars. This community had few backers when India was ruling the sport. Always acknowledged but left uncared for, the Adivasi genius for sport, notably hockey, remained in the background for years.

True, there were some at the national level here and there, thanks largely to the institutional teams like Services and Railways. A Michael Kindo in 1972 or a Sylvanus Dung Dung in 1980 did attract some recognition but not enough to comprehend the huge reservoir of human resources left in the dusty villages and hamlets of Orissa and Bihar. The talk of unearthing rural talent, Adivasis in particular, remained mere lip service. There was noticeable scepticism whether the skills of Adivasis could be honed to match international sophistication.

Studied against this backdrop, the rise to fame of 28-year-old Dilip Tirkey is indeed striking. Not only did he earn the national colours in three Olympics (1996, 2000, 2004) and in two World Cups (1998 and 2002), not to speak of matches in international and continental championships, but he went on to lead the national team. This mirrors the endurance, excellence and efficiency of Tirkey, who fought his way up the ladder by sheer hard work. It underscores again the fortitude of a man to conquer heavy odds, almost to the point of his success heralding a new possibility in team selection. If India today can think in terms of forming a national team purely with Adivasi content, the credit of generating such an optimistic thought should go to Dilip Tirkey.

It is difficult to quantify the inspiration Vincent Tirkey was for his two sons, Dilip and Anoop. The talent scouts in the Sports Authority of India (SAI) adopted Bhavani Shankar School at Saunamara in Sundargarh District and identified the spark in young Dilip Tirkey. The credit for unearthing Tirkey should go to A. K. Bansal. As Tirkey moved into the SAI Hostel in Calcutta, the road to growth and stardom was well charted.

A place in the Orissa Junior team in the Nineties, and then a spot in the senior team at the National Championship at Bikaner in 1993 gave Tirkey enough exposure. Actually, Bansal had shunted Tirkey to the right-back position from being a left-half. The coach was influenced by the natural ability of his student to read the line of the ball and his sharp reflexes to intercept and dodge. Today, contemporary hockey has few who can hold a candle to Tirkey when it comes to tackling, intercepting and despatching the ball to safety zones.

In the middle of the last decade, Tirkey established himself as a worthy national player. His baptism had to be delayed on account of the disruption caused by the earthquake in Maharashtra and the serial bomb blasts in Mumbai. The Indira Gandhi Gold Cup in Delhi brought Tirkey into national focus. Skipper Jude Felix and coach Cedric D'Souza gave the youngster the nerve to stay firm against the formidable Koreans.

Tirkey, who was brilliant in Under- 21 tournaments, had his golden moment in the 1995 SAF Games at Chennai. And then came the big break — the Centenary Olympics at Atlanta — followed by the silver medal in the 1997 Junior World Cup at Milton Keynes, the World Cup debut for seniors in Utrecht in the Netherlands.

After 1995, no Indian team could be picked without Tirkey. He emerged as the key-man in defence, forming an effective link with his buddy, Lazarus Barla, and then with Dinesh Naik and Kanwalpreet Singh. His growing stature was commensurate with the quality of performances.

In popularity ratings, Tirkey may have been second to Dhanraj Pillay largely because he lacked the charisma and the PR skills of the latter. But the administration showed no hint of hesitancy in elevating him as captain. Under his leadership, India played one of its most outstanding matches against Pakistan at Cologne where the team missed the bronze by a whisker. A silver in Busan Asiad, where India produced a superlative display against Pakistan, was another milestone as much as the gold in the 1998 Asiad at Bangkok. The triumph in the SAF Games at Hyderabad has been his finest hour so far. Though he was not the leader, Tirkey played a significant role in the Asia Cup triumph at Kuala Lumpur in 2003.

Last year, Tirkey was accorded the distinction of leading India in the Olympics at Athens, thereby becoming the second Adivasi captain after Jaipal Singh Munda in 1928. That Tirkey managed to steer clear of the imbroglio that preceded the preparation for Athens and which succeeded the Games reflects his equanimity and sense of restraint. Not surprisingly, he was retained captain for the India-Pakistan series and the Champions Trophy at Lahore last December. He led the Hyderabad Sultans to the trophy triumph in the first Premier Hockey League at Hyderabad.

At his peak now, Tirkey has a few more years left in competitive hockey. Constant exposure and a willingness to imbibe new things have added polish to his approach. Penalty corner hits are an additional weapon to his accomplished all-round proficiency. He is not essentially a drag-flicker like Jugraj, Aiyappa or Sandeep, but a fluent hitter of ground shots at varying angles and velocity that can bemuse any goal-keeper.

As one who relishes the thick of the battle, especially in defending penalty corners, Tirkey had to expose himself to injuries. He sustained a facial injury in the series against Pakistan last year but was back on the field in the quickest possible time. An ankle injury at Hyderabad in the PHL had sidelined him from the National — he plays for Indian Airlines — at the same venue last month.

Recognition of Tirkey's calibre was either ignored or delayed by the powers-that-be. The Arjuna Award in 2002 should have come at least two years earlier. Tirkey is the trump card as India prepares for next year's World Cup. The first step in the preparation is the Azlan Shah tournament this week.

Battle scarred and seasoned, with enthusiasm to court success remaining high, Dilip Tirkey continues to be the motivating factor for India. The ebb and flow of his career forms a stimulating chapter for his team-mates as well as the youth of his country.