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Odisha leads the way in hockey


When it comes to thinking outside the box, Odisha’s Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik has few rivals in the Indian political firmament. Until Odisha did, no one in India had ever thought that a state government could sponsor a sports team, as used as everyone is to looking at the names of big companies on the jerseys of the players. It was in 2018 when Odisha stepped in to sponsor the Indian hockey team, junior or senior, for five years with an expenditure of Rs 150 crore after Sahara, the previous sponsor, withdrew. Call it Naveen’s love for the game (he played it during his school years, apparently as a goalie) or his odd knack for choosing the right thing to improve his already larger-than-life political personality. There is no doubt that the hitherto unknown experience of watching “Odisha” on the jerseys of national team players has given every Odia a high, hockey fan or not.

From there to hosting the prestigious FIH Hockey World Cup tournament in Bhubaneswar in 2018 was only a logical progression. The ground for the flagship event, of course, had already been laid with the Champions Trophy in 2014 and the World Hockey League finals in 2017. And after winning the rights to host the World Cup of Hockey for the second time in a row in 2023, the first time a state has been allowed to host the event twice in a row, Odisha has truly become the country’s newest hockey center. In between, Bhubaneswar’s Kalinga Stadium also hosted the FIH Men’s Series Finals and Olympic Hockey Playoffs in 2019 and the FIH Pro League in 2020, further highlighting the growing importance of the state in the hockey map. international. In addition to improving infrastructure, the government of Odisha, in collaboration with the Tata group, also set up a high performance center at the Kalinga stadium in 2018. Up to 2,500 young up-and-coming players are being trained in the 12 basic centers. set up to find and train young hockey talents.

However, the Kalinga Stadium emerging as the hub of hockey in Odisha was a bit of an anachronism as it is not part of the “catchment area” for young hockey talent. Hockey is not played in nearby areas. For decades, almost all of the Odisha players who have worn the national colors have come from the predominantly tribal district of Sundargarh. Former Indian captain Dillip Tirkey, former internationals Lazarus Barla, Ignace Tirkey and Prabodh Tirkey, current team members Birendra Lakra and Amit Rohidas are some of the illustrious names who honed their skills on the rugged natural grass of the district. It is the undisputed birthplace of hockey in Odisha, which has provided a few players to almost every Indian hockey team for as long as we can remember. For thousands of young adivasis boys and girls in the neighborhood, hockey is a way of life. As a joker once said, the kids here “learn to walk with hockey sticks”! No wonder that the “Khasi” tournaments (where the winning party receives a goat to feast on as prizes) organized in the villages of the district attract a lot of the population.

It is encouraging that after decades of apathy, Sundargarh is finally getting his due. The upcoming Birsa Munda hockey stadium in Rourkela, which co-hosts the 2023 World Cup of Hockey, will be the largest in the country with a capacity of 20,000. More importantly, man-made lawns are laid in each of the 17 blocks in the neighborhood to give aspiring players the feel of international standard turf from a young age to better prepare them for international competitions.

Together, the multiple – and multiple – initiatives taken should result in more hockey players who can represent the national team. We can expect a time in the not too distant future when Odisha players would be an important part of the Indian hockey team, as the Punjab have done all these years.

Other than Sundargarh, Odisha never really had a hockey culture. But thanks to the initiatives of the Odisha government in recent years, the state is starting to see the first signs of such a culture gaining ground.

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. Opinions expressed are those of the author and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or opinions. OTV does not assume any responsibility in this regard.)

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