Hockey a way of life in Sundargarh
The British introduced hockey in the tribal-dominated region of Odisha two centuries ago. The game has thrived since then with the region continuing to produce a number of internationals.
‘Hockey is our way of life’ reads a poster at the exit of the new Birsa Munda Hockey Stadium here. It literally is for people of Sundargarh district.
Nestled in the undulating tableland with low-ranging hills and green cover, the second largest and mineral rich district of Odisha is home to several tribes with one thing common across villages – hockey.
Drive from Rourkela, the largest city of the district, into the countryside and one can see children playing hockey on barren plots next to lush paddy fields. These grounds have produced around 100 internationals –senior and junior of both genders. From Hockey India (HI) president Dilip Tirkey, the first from Odisha to represent India seniors, to the two playing at this World Cup, Amit Rohidas and Nilam Sanjeep Xess.
Almost 90 percent of Odisha’s hockey players come from Sundargarh. The British soldiers of the East India Company brought hockey to India 200 years ago. Christian missionaries who were establishing schools in the Chota Nagpur plateau then spread the game in the region. “The missionaries came to this area from Ranchi. They made hockey compulsory in their schools. They would take classes for the game after seeing that tribal people have speed and stamina. That is how my forefathers, my father and I learnt hockey. That is how it spread in Sundargarh,” said Peter Tirkey, a tribal player and the first from Odisha to represent India, at the 1982 Junior World Cup.
The tradition has endured. Hockey is the most popular sport among the tribal people. Village boys and girls still fashion hockey sticks from bamboo, playing barefoot in open village squares.
“Since there was no other entertainment everyone would pack food and leave home in the morning and come to the only church in the area on Sundays to witness inter-village competitions... That stoked the fascination for hockey here,” says Dronacharya awardee AK Bansal, who trained Dilip Tirkey during his stint as coach with Sports Authority of India (SAI), Sundargarh from 1987-92. Bansal has a PhD on tribal hockey.
Once India became independent, the military started recruiting from the belt. The late Michael Kindo (1975 World Cup winner), though born in neighbouring Jharkhand, is the most famous recruit from the area.
To nurture hockey in Sundargarh, the Odisha government established the State Sports Hostel in Panposh in 1985. The SAIL Hockey Academy came up in Rourkela in 1992.
Dilip Tirkey’s rise – the first from Odisha to play for India seniors in 1995 – had a major impact on the hockey loving population of Sundargarh. Seeing a boy from Saunamara village play for India and later captain the national team transformed the picture. Since then Sundargarh district has produced around 100 India players. Watching Lazarus Barla, William Xalxo, Ignace Tirkey, Prabodh Tirkey and others on TV playing in the Olympics and World Cups made the tribal players believe they too can do it.
Jobs were a key factor too. “The locals started seeing hockey as anna data (food provider). They saw their brothers and sisters from the mud house next door travel the world, get jobs with prestigious companies; it gave them hope it could happen for them. That thing is still continuing,” says Kalu Charan Choudhary, a hockey coach at Panposh since 1987 who has guided 50-odd internationals.
With many players from Sundargarh making the cut for India, the state government opened another State Sports Hostel there in 1999, with the Sports Authority of India’s Sports Training Centre (STC) following suit.
Panposh is the biggest centre with 199 trainees, the SAIL academy has 32, the Sundargarh state hostel has 37 and the SAI centre has 60. Panposh has produced 67 internationals, including Olympic bronze medallist Rohidas. SAIL has produced 11, including Olympic bronze medallist Birendra Laka.
The academies hold block-wise trials in Odisha. “We don’t focus on skills. We test physical fitness after which they undergo a medical test. Normally, they are aged 10-14. We check their endurance in 800m, speed in 30m sprint and long jumps to test leg strength. After they make the merit list, we teach them the A to Z of hockey in the first two years, build game sense. When they are ready, they go and play tournaments, first at local level, then school, district, state and national,” says Choudhary.
The trainees are provided free food and accommodation; the hostels spend around ₹280 each daily on diet. The SAIL academy gives something extra. “We normally have a three-year term for athletes with provision for two-year extensions depending on performance. Our first-year trainees get ₹1,000 per month as pocket money, second years get ₹1,100 and third years ₹1,250,” says Peter Tirkey, who has produced 11 internationals from 1992 to his retirement as SAIL coach at December end.
“We normally buy hockey equipment for ourselves with the pocket money,” says 18-year-old Rajkumar Minz, who hails from Subdega and has played at two junior nationals.
Sonu Nishad, 17, is delighted every time Lakra, a SAIL product, drops in. “He asks us to focus and be disciplined saying that will take us far.”
With more Odisha players reaching the national and international stage, the government began hosting top international tournaments at the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar, starting with the 2014 Champions Trophy. The region became the first in the world to host successive World Cups, having also staged the 2018 edition when the government announced the laying of 17 new synthetic turfs in Sundargarh.
In 2018, the Odisha government became the main sponsor of the Indian teams, signing a ₹100 crore deal for five years. In 2021, they renewed the contract for 10 years for an undisclosed sum after India won bronze at the Tokyo Olympics.
“Of them, 16 have been completed... The idea is to strengthen and develop the sport among kids. The craze for hockey is on the rise. People here watch and talk hockey on the streets,” says Dilip Tirkey. Today, there are 23 synthetic turfs in Sundargarh district alone.
“Hockey has a special importance here. I see a greater number of kids playing hockey because they are getting opportunities," said Amit Rohidas, who is a product of the Panposh hostel. “Hockey has not become but has always been a way of life here.”