Sundargarh is one of the many districts in India which has places that seem untouched by time. Here, you’d find expanses of fields and forests, cattle on road, minimal traffic, a wall-painted advertisement of a wall painter for hire, and a 110 cc Kawasaki Bajaj Caliber motorcycle among other sights that seem to belong to an era bygone.

The district, the second largest of Odisha, was formed following the merger of two princely states – Gangapur and Bonai – in 1948. Apart from iron ore, manganese, limestone, timber and bamboo, a resource that rich in this part of the state is hockey. The government sports hostel in Rourkela (a city that’s part of Sundergarh) alone has produced 50 players from this region, according to the Odisha government.

No one precisely knows how or when hockey started here. The popular theory is that the European Christian missionaries introduced the sport to the tribes when they visited in the mid-19th century. But, for the people of this place, the history doesn’t matter much. They’re just glad that hockey’s been a part of their lives for several generations now. One among them went on to play over 400 international games for India and featured in three Olympics. He goes by the name of Dilip Tirkey.

Dilip, because he became a legend, made Sundargarh famous. But Sundargarh made Dilip. “My village, Saunamara, and many other villages surrounding it have a long history of hockey,” he said. “There’s a big craze for hockey. And the place has a hockey culture. So, as I was growing up, I watched the game and imbibed it.”

Playing for goats, chickens and eggs

One of the integral elements of the hockey culture, which Dilip speaks of, is the Khasi Cup, an inter- and/or intra-village village tribal hockey tournament. Khasi in Odiya means goat. The winning team of the tournament is awarded a goat. The players are given a hero’s welcome in their village. The goat they win is used for a celebratory gala feast for the entire village, wherein the players are the cynosure.

But according to Chullu Barla, the sarpanch of Saunamara (Dilip’s village), the name itself is loosely used these days, for the prize is not a goat all the time. “It varies,” he said. “Nowadays, cash is involved. Trophies as well. But sometimes, it’s chicken. Kids play for eggs or coconuts. I’ve heard stories from my grandfather that they used to play [for goats] but I don’t remember such a thing.”

Hockey sticks – purchased/rented/received as gifts – are now available for the tournaments, which, according to Chullu, take place from June till “Christmas time”. But hockey sticks weren’t always at the disposal of the villagers of Sundargarh. “Yeah, we used to carve make-do sticks from a piece of a tree’s trunk or a bamboo, dry it for days and polish it before the tournaments,” he said.

The venue of Khasi Cup tournaments in Saunamara.

Chullu knows well all the players from his village who have gone on to represent India. He was Dilip’s senior in primary school. In his neighbourhood are the houses of Dipsan Tirkey, who was the vice-captain of the Indian squad that won the 2016 Men’s Hockey Junior World Cup, and Amit Rohidas, who’s part of the current Indian squad at the ongoing World Cup.

Amit’s father, Gopal, recalls a time when he played hockey with his son in the moonlight. Only eight years ago did his neighbourhood get access to electricity. Dipsan’s father still turns up for hockey matches in Khasi Cup.

Hockey provides livelihood

A coach at the government sports hostel in Sundargarh, who requested not to be named, said that most of Odisha’s hockey talent comes from the district. Among his pupils were Amit and Dipsan.

The dream of most kids in Sundargarh, he said, is to get into a residential sports hostel. “Of course, for the first few days, they will miss their parents but they are taken care of here and they get more opportunities in life,” he said.

Few, like Dipsan and Amit, go on to play for the Indian team. But the rest, who don’t make it to the national side, find jobs in army, para-military forces, police, railway, banks and other government and non-government sectors by playing hockey, he added.

Dilip’s school doesn’t have a hockey team

The 'unofficial' team of Bhabanishankar government high school (where Dilip Tirkey studied).

A plaque affixed on the wall inside the principal’s office of the government high school in Bhabanishankar (a block in Sundargarh) honours eight of its illustrious alumni. It reads, “We are proud of” and lists seven names with their common title: IAS (Indian Administrative Service). The eighth name, Dilip Tirkey, is printed in a larger font and occupies a much more space in the plaque with two photos – one, a headshot of him and the other, a medium shot of him, clad in Indian jersey, wielding a hockey stick.

Some of the young ones don’t know the name of their principal but are aware of Dilip Tirkey. “He’s been a big role model for the kids,” said Sudanshu Kumar Choudhary, the mathematics teacher, who, joined the school in 1992, a year after Dilip passed out from it.

“When Dilip used to play, SAI used to provide financial assistance for equipment, training and even for travel but after that has stopped, the school couldn’t afford to fund the hockey team,” he said.

That, however, doesn’t deter the children from playing the game. They have formed a team themselves and play in local tournaments, using their own hockey sticks and balls.

They are aware that the Hockey World Cup’s happening in their state’s capital. They know India’s in it. But of India’s opponents, they have little idea. Even the members of the Indian squad – apart from the locals, Amit Rohidas and Birendra Lakra – they aren’t aware of.

Speaking to them, one gets a sense that they don’t need a motivation or a role model – Dilip Tirkey/Amit Rohidas/Birendra Lakra/Hockey World Cup/prize money – to take up the game. They play hockey because it’s part of their lives.