Road running

India's 'Hockey Village' set for transition from bamboo sticks to artificial turf

In the small village that has given India some of its biggest hockey players, it all starts with sticks made from bamboo or kendu tree.

Every evening more than 100 children at Saunamara, a hamlet of little over 2000 tribal inhabitants in Odisha’s Sundargarh district, play on a dusty ground, pursuing their dreams of becoming the next Dilip Tirkey, Amit Rohidas or Subhadra Pradhan. Their fortunes, though, could change soon as an artificial turf will be ready by next month.

That means the village, which is located just over 100km from Birsa Munda Stadium, the world’s largest all-seater hockey-specific venue in Rourkela, could churn out more international players.

Saunamara is now known as the ‘Hockey Village’ of India as it has given the country former men’s team captain and Hockey India president Tirkey, current national team player Amit Rohidas, India junior team vice-captain Dipsan Tirkey and ex-India women’s skipper Subhadra, among others.

This village is part of the Balisankara block of Sundargarh district, which is now considered the cradle of Indian hockey, having given more than 60 national team players, both male and female.

“There were no proper hockey ground in my village when I grow up. We had to play wherever we get some space. But now my village is going to have an artificial turf,” Tirkey, one of the finest defenders of his time and most capped player for India with 421 matches, told PTI.

“I am very happy for the children of my village and, at the same time, feeling proud of the contribution of my village for Indian hockey,” said the 45-year-old, who made his India debut in 1995 and retired in 2010, before becoming HI chief.

He said the artificial surface being laid out at his village is a sand-filled turf, which is most appropriate for schools and is a publicly accessible facility, because of its lower cost and multi-functionality. The astro turf used for international matches costs at least Rs 4 crore but the price is lower for sand-filled artificial pitches.

The Odisha government has started laying synthetic turfs in all the 17 blocks of the Sundargarh district and some of them are already completed. The laying of the artificial surface at the Saunamara village, with the accompanying field marking, is completed. Only the goal posts are to be erected. It will also have change rooms and other facilities at the front side which will have a proper entrance.

Construction started in December 2021 and was to be completed in one year. But there has been a slight delay and the facility will be completed next month.

“Hockey is our life, it’s in our blood and all the children in our village play hockey every evening,” said Aman Tirkey, a student of class seven at the Government UG High School. “When I grow up I want to play for the country like Dilip Tirkey or Amit Rohidas,” he said, showing off his dribbling skills. “I am waiting for the new artificial turf to be completed and then I will play there.”

The game of stick is not restricted to boys as girls like Sumitra Dhurwa also want to take up the sport as a career option. “I want to be Subhadra Pradhan, she is my idol. Our parents never stop us from playing hockey. They rather support and tell me to go and play it,” Sumitra, a class eight student of the same Government UG High School, said.

The only ground in the Saunamara village – where the likes of Dilip Tirkey played in their childhood – before this. (Tazeen Qureshy)

Government UG is the only high school in the village. There is another school, a Christian mission school, which is up to class five standard. There is a problem for the children, though. All the children do not have modern hockey sticks and they have had to make their own from bamboo and kendu tree trunk. The base of the bamboo tree will be cut round to be used as the ball.

“We provide these modern hockey sticks to our students during games period. Moreover, we give away the old sticks to the students for free to take home,” said Ishwarchandra Naik, head master of the Government UG High School.

“But all the children at this village cannot have proper modern sticks. For those children of poorer parents, they have to play with sticks made of bamboo or kendu tree. They will cut the base of the bamboo into a round and hard object and will use it as a ball,” he said.

Rather than stopping children from playing hockey, the parents of the village encourage them to take up the sport at an early age. “Our father Vincent Tirkey was in the CRPF and he was a hockey player. He would take Dilip to all places to play hockey. I am also a hockey player. In the village, parents encourage their children to play hockey,” Tirkey’s older brother Francis, said.

The same is the case with Rohidas who was initiated to the sport by his father who took him to the village playground from a young age.

Saunamara is a unique village, with hockey being the most attractive thing for the people here. The lone and dusty playground has the paintings of several past and present India hockey players of Sundargarh region — Tirkey, Rohidas, Prabhodh Tirkey, Ignace Tirkey, Deep Grace Ekka and Subhadhra — strewn along with ‘Chakde India’ and ‘My National Game’ written on bold.

There is also a painting of a hand holding a hockey stick with the caption ‘It’s my life’, summing up the craze of the national game in this village. Surprisingly, there is also a painting of former India cricket captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni.

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