2023 Men's FIH Hockey World Cup: Where Every Stick Says Hockey

Sundargarh’s connect with the sport goes back a century when European missionaries introduced hockey as part of the school curriculum in the region

The Indian men’s hockey
team after winning the bronze medal at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics
The Indian men’s hockey team after winning the bronze medal at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics

Debasish Panigrahi

Put a stick in a child’s hand, they say, and next thing you know, s/he will be playing hockey. Such is the love for the sport in Odisha, particularly in the tribal belt of Sundargarh that has produced a battery of world class hockey players who have represented the country at national and international events.

Odisha is hosting the Hockey Men’s World Cup 2023 (January 13-29). The two cities of Bhubaneswar and Rourkela have been painted blue for the tournament, that will see 16 nations participating. The Taj Group is providing hospitality and catering to the teams. While A.R. Rehman had composed the anthem for the 2018 edition, Bollywood music director Pritam has composed the anthem for this World Cup. The state government is promoting the event as FIH ‘Odisha’ Hockey Men’s World Cup 2023. And why not? The game that was dying a slow death has got a new lease of life thanks to Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik’s personal interest and effort over the last decade.

Patnaik, whose love for the sport dates back to his Doon School days, was committed to bringing the next hockey World Cup to Sundargarh (the state capital Bhubaneswar had hosted the previous edition in 2018 at the Kalinga stadium). The validation came at the Tokyo Olympics in August 2021, when the Indian men’s hockey team won the bronze by trouncing mighty Germany 5-4 in a play-off match for the medal. It ended a 41-year medal drought for the country at the Olympics. (The last win was a gold medal at the Moscow Olympics way back in 1980.) Days before the men’s triumph, the women’s team had registered a stunning victory over Australia to enter the semis. These back-to-back surprises came nearly three years after Naveen Patnaik stepped in to sponsor and adopt the two national teams after the Sahara Group withdrew its support.

Even as the entire country was celebrating, Patnaik was huddled in a meeting with some of his trusted bureaucrats at his official residence, finalising details of the Birsa Munda International Hockey Stadium to be built at Rourkela in Sundargarh district. With India stepping out to play the 15th edition of the FIH Men’s Hockey World Cup in what is India’s largest hockey stadium—Birsa Munda has a seating capacity of over 20,000—that moment has paid off.

Also read: Hockey Is Now a Career Option: Hockey India President Dilip Tirkey

Sundargarh’s Hockey Connection

The district’s connect with the sport goes back a century when European missionaries introduced hockey as part of the school curriculum in the region. Subsequently, the sport seeped into the culture of the local tribes like Oram, Kharia, Munda and Bhuniya. (It is not uncommon to see an elderly person walking with the help of a hockey stick, or a child learning to walk with one.) Its lanky tribal boys and girls have earned Sundargarh the sobriquet of the ‘Cradle of Indian Hockey’.

Several local traditions are tied to the sport. Weddings sometimes witness a friendly hockey match between the bride’s XI pitted against the groom’s; culminating in revelries and feasts called the ‘Prem Bhoj’. Hockey tournaments are routinely held with a goat (khassi) offered as a trophy to the winning team. The more prosperous villages up the ante by offering as many as two goats to the winner and one to the runner-up. Popular crowd-pullers, the khassi tournaments are quite the carnival, ending with villagers feasting and drinking hadia (home-brewed rice beer) and mahua (distilled from mahua fruits).

Those who follow hockey would be aware that Odisha’s Sundargarh has long replaced Punjab’s Sansapur and Karnataka’s Coorg as the powerhouse of Indian hockey.

Peter Tirkey, the first hockey Olympian from the district, recalls, “We learnt the ropes of the game from our elders who would bend a stick or a bamboo shoot at one end on slow flames and use it as a hockey stick, while the ball could be anything from a bundle of used cloths to waste paper. And we would keep playing until the sun went down over the hills.”

National hockey teams have gained several captains from the region— Dilip Tirkey, Ignace Tirkey, Lazarus Barl, Birendra Lakra and Amit Rohidas (Indian men’s team), and Jyoti Sunita Kullu, Subhadra Pradhan, Sunita Lakra and Deep Grace Ekka (Indian women’s team), to name a few. Ace Olympian and son of the soil, Dilip Tirkey, has also been appointed as the president of Hockey India.

As per the data of the youth and sports services department, government of Odisha, Sundargarh’s schools and colleges have produced thousands of state and national level hockey players, with many absorbed by the Railways, Odisha Police and PSUs like SAIL, ONGC etc.

Around 1985, Odisha shot to prominence in the game, thanks to Michael Kindo who—following a glorious stint in the national team—led the state hockey team after settling down in Rourkela. The first hockey academy was set up at Panposh, Rourkela that same year. In 1992, Rourkela Steel Plant launched the SAIL Hockey Academy, and in 2002, Sports Authority of India (SAI) opened the National Hockey Academy in Sundargarh.

At present, Sundargarh district (apart from the BMIHS), has the highest density of hockey facilities in the world, with three hockey academies, and a cluster of 16 synthetic turf grounds across 17 blocks of the district.

The World Cup trophy in Bhubaneswar
The World Cup trophy in Bhubaneswar

Saunamara, the Hockey Village of India

No story on hockey and Odisha would be complete without the mention of Saunamara village, a sleepy hamlet in the interior Balisankara block. If, as they say, it takes a village to raise a child, it takes Saunamara to grow a hockey champ. The village has been categorised as a Heritage Hockey Village, having produced generations of players of national and international repute—of whom Dilip Tirkey, Ignas Tirkey, Lazarus Barla, Jyoti Sunita Kullu, Sunita Lakra, Deep Grace Ekka, Amit Rohidas (who was instrumental in clinching bronze for India at the Tokyo Olympics), Birendra Lakra, are just a few. At least four players in both men’s and women’s squads currently come from Saunamara.

No surprise, then, that the celebrations for the ensuing World Cup in the district began by flagging off a series of sports and cultural tournaments from Saunamara, not Rourkela, though the latter is hosting the tournament. A staggering number of over 850 hockey teams are vying for the intra-district championship cup

Odisha’s Investment in Sports

The Odisha government has spent around Rs 92 crore on sponsoring Hockey India since 2018, as per the information provided by state sports minister, Tusharkanti Behera.

Odisha’s sports budget has gone up from a modest Rs 28 crore in 2010-11 to Rs 405 crore in 2021-22, and the state government intends to up its sports expenditure further to Rs 506 crore in FY2022-23. Odisha is among the top spending states on sports in the country.

Moreover, Odisha is the only state with its own team, Kalinga Lancers, in the Hockey India League.

CM Naveen Patnaik, while inaugurating the Birsa Munda stadium on January 5, affirmed with justifiable pride that Bhubaneswar had emerged as the sports capital of the country. He also announced a cash award of Rs 1 crore to each member of the Indian team should they lift the World Cup.

If 2021 saw Indian hockey emerging from a long drought, 2023 might just be another golden opportunity for our players to reclaim their place among the best.

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