And after winning the rights to host the Hockey World Cup for the second time running in 2023, the first time any state has got the right to host the event twice in succession, Odisha has truly emerged as the newest hockey hub in the country.
Odisha CM Naveen Patnaik with captains of Indian Hockey Men's and Women's team.
When it comes to thinking out of box, Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik has few rivals in the Indian political firmament. Till Odisha did it, no one in India had ever thought that a state government could sponsor a sporting team, accustomed as everyone was to watching the names of big corporates on the players' jerseys. In 2018 when Odisha stepped in to sponsor the Indian hockey team, both junior or senior, for five years with an outlay of Rs 150 crores after Sahara, the earlier sponsor, backed off. Call it Naveen’s love for the game (he used to play it in his school days, apparently as a goalie) or his uncanny knack of picking the right thing to enhance his already larger-than-life political persona. There is little doubt that the hitherto unknown experience of watching ‘Odisha’ on the jerseys of players of the national team gave a high to every Odia, hockey aficionado or not.
From there to hosting the prestigious FIH Hockey World Cup Hockey tournament in Bhubaneswar in 2018 was but a logical progression. The ground for the marquee event, of course, had already been laid with the Champions Trophy in 2014 and the Hockey World League finals in 2017. And after winning the rights to host the Hockey World Cup for the second time running in 2023, the first time any state has got the right to host the event twice in succession, Odisha has truly emerged as the newest hockey hub in the country. In between, the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar has also hosted the FIH Men’s series finals and the Olympic hockey qualifiers in 2019 and the FIH Pro league in 2020, further emphasizing the state’s growing importance in the international hockey map. Besides sprucing up the infrastructure, the Odisha government, in collaboration with the Tata group, has also set up a high performance centre at the Kalinga Stadium in 2018. As many as 2,500 young, upcoming players are being trained at the 12 grassroots centres set up to unearth and groom young hockey talent.
However, the Kalinga Stadium emerging as the hub of hockey in Odisha was a bit of an anachronism because it is not in the ‘catchment area’ of young hockey talent. Hockey is not played in areas close to it. For decades, almost all the players from Odisha who have gone on to sport the national colours have come from the predominantly tribal district of Sundargarh. Former Indian captain Dillip Tirkey, former internationals Lazarus Barla, Ignace Tirkey and Prabodh Tirkey, current members of the team Birendra Lakra and Amit Rohidas are some of the illustrious names who have honed their skills on the rugged natural turf of the district. It is the unquestioned cradle of hockey in Odisha, which has provided a few players for almost every Indian hockey team for as long as one can remember. For thousands of young Adivasi boys and girls in the district, hockey is a way of life. As a wag commented once, children here ‘learn to walk with hockey sticks’! No wonder the ‘Khasi’ tournaments (where the winning side gets a goat to feast on by way of prize) organized in the villages of the district are a big draw for the people.
It is heartening that after decades of apathy, Sundargarh is finally getting its due. The Birsa Munda hockey stadium coming up at Rourkela, which is co-hosting the 2023 World Cup Hockey, will be the biggest in the country with a seating capacity of 20,000. More importantly, synthetic turfs are being laid in each of the 17 blocks in the district to give budding players the feel of international standard turf from an early age to prepare them better for international competitions.
Together, the multiple – and multifarious – initiatives being taken are expected to throw up more hockey players who can represent the national side. One can look forward to a time in the none too distant future when players from Odisha would constitute a sizeable section of the Indian hockey team, like Punjab has been doing all these years.
Apart from Sundargarh, Odisha never really had a hockey culture. But thanks to the initiatives of the Odisha government over the last few years, the state is beginning to witness early signs of such a culture gaining ground.
(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.)