It is a blazing hot afternoon, a group of 4-5 boys are sitting under the shade of a mango tree with hockey sticks in their hands. The kids are from a village a few kilometres off Sundergarh town, a place where no one speaks or talks about cricket, it is hockey all the way. Ask anyone about their favourites sportsperson and it is hockey player, most prefer and idolise Dileep Tirkey, cricket does not even feature in the list. Most of the local tournaments held here are not fancy affairs, at times the prize is a goat.
Sundergarh belongs to impoverished region of the Chotha Nagpur Plateau, a place which has great mineral wealth, yet has seen little or no development. The region is famous for producing world class hockey players and being good is at the time the only hope for a secured future. It is not a cakewalk for most of them, the dream involves endlessly hours of honing their skills with makeshift bamboo sticks, poles serve as goalposts.
Drenched in sweat and a bruised leg to show off, 10-year-old Amit Tirkey, dribbles with a piece of stick bent at one end. He is too poor to afford a proper hockey stick. Mention the name of any of the famous hockey players from this region and his eyes light up. He adds, "I share the same surname as Dileep Tirkey and I want to be a great player like him, but I want to be a midfielder or a forward and not a defender." When asked why, he adds, "I like to score goals and not stop goals". Pat comes a tap on his head from his friend, who dares him to score a goal and off they go to play on the dusty and stony surface, the joy clearly evident for all to see.
The question that everyone wants to know is how and why did the game become so famous in this part of the country? Some believe that the Christian missionaries were the main reason for spreading the game. Sampad Mahapatra, a journalist who has covered the region for decades, points out that most of the players who have played for the country belong to the Oram tribe. Most of the Orams are Christians. Mr Mahapatra adds, along with hockey a host of other games were also introduced, but it is hockey which became a rage.
What also works in their favour is their never ending stamina and strong legs.
For those who graduate to the next level, there is a SAI academy in Panposh, near Rourkela. The academy which is meant to provide a platform to raw talent, does not really live up to it mark. The amenities are very few and those available do not live up to the standards. The state hockey association is based in Cuttack and officials only make infrequent trips to the region, much to the disgust of the locals in the region. The locals believe that people will continue to play the game, but what they question is for how long in the midst of very little support from the state administration. If the apathy continues, the game will die a slow and painful death.