My first memory of playing hockey is something that I have cherished all throughout my life. I stood on the Astroturf court at Ispat Stadium, Sector-6, Rourkela, the tallest amongst a group of 30 odd young players who had enrolled for the summer Hockey program at the SAIL Hockey Academy. Barring me and a couple of my friends, the whole camp had young players from the adjoining tribal hamlets who had been playing hockey ever since their childhood; as a novice, I stood no chance before them. I had been asked to play as a forward, as the coaches assumed that my height and speed would transform into me being a gargantuan presence up front. I was up against a kid from a neighboring hamlet, who was maybe 4 inches shorter than me, but his stamina and trapping ability were among the best in the whole camp. Not so surprisingly, I was completely embarrassed, shunned down and withdrawn within the first half-an-hour. I was dejected and disgruntled and was waiting for the session to end, having already made up my mind never to wield the crooked stick again.
As I was about to leave, my nemesis came up and confronted me, blabbering something in his native “sadri” language that I didn’t comprehend at all. He seemed pissed off at me, and that infuriated me more. “You killed me down there and still you want to come up and confront me?” I was about to admonish him and brand him a lunatic, when a friend of mine translated whatever he wanted to say. Turned out, that he was infuriated because I had come to play with a Sachin Tendulkar jersey. A birthday gift, and maybe my most precious possession, it baffled me as to how someone could revolt against the masterful genius. My friend explained that for the tribal youngsters, there was only one GOD and he wielded his magic from a crooked stick and not a willow. He was none other than Dilip Tirkey, the then hockey captain for India, the hero of almost every hockey player in Orissa and the player who was revered beyond anything else in the tribal hamlets.
“Ama Dilip sabuthu bhala,” as they always said. Dilip had gone on to live his dream and given hopes to many. To the tribal youngsters he was beyond spirituality and miles beyond the horizon and heavens above. As a country that is known for easily getting over-awed by its sporting heroes, it is but natural to expect us to extol insuperable and gifted talents into a rostrum much greater and feel no abashment or compunctions in projecting them as “GOD”. Rational thoughts don’t feature much in such decorations, and if you divert from following such norms, you are no better than a defiant agnostic, a medieval day taboo that is still much prevalent in our nation today. To the kid, Dilip Tirkey was his god, and I was an ignorant atheist who had dared to ignore his pantheon. As a god-fearing kid, I was more than happy to apologize, and next day turned up wearing a Dilip Tirkey jersey. Well, from then on, I was like a long-lost brother for him and for the better part of four years and my school life, he was my best friend. It was with him that I came to realize and was mesmerized by the dexterous and adroit hockey legend that is Dilip Tirkey.
Dilip Tirkey is a living legend for the youth of Sundergarh, but for the pundits and the savants, bedizening him is not so much of a given. To the much-decorated hockey fraternity of the country, the sport has always been about glorifying the wizardry and stick-work of players like Dhyan Chand or Dhanraj Pillay. Dilip, who grew up idolizing Pragat Singh, never had the stick-work and the skills to mesmerize. He was your conventional full-back, great with his trapping and having the ability to tackle and track the trickiest and the quickest of the forward players. His much-famed carpet drives, the scoops and the drag-flicks were effective, but not a refreshing telegenic.
A veteran of three Olympics, he captained the nation in the Athens Olympics and finished his career as the highest capped player of all time. Many caps, several memories, but alas he never had a crown befitting his contributions to the sport. There are many pundits and experts who still downplay his long journey and his incredible longevity as a legacy that flourished under the shadow of a certain Dhanraj Pillay and Baljit Singh Dhillon.
However, the unmitigated and simplistic Dilip never cherished and wished for such extolments. Growing up in the tribal villages of Sundergarh, his dreams were far from the glare and the glitter of the sports world. In the district of Sundergarh, his first introduction to the game was funneled through his father’s love for the sport. In the tribal hamlets of the district of Sundergarh, the sport of hockey is more than just a game. To the believers, it is more than a religion, to the agnostics a singular source of hope – an opportunity to look beyond the purview of illiteracy, poverty and the clutches of reduced life expectancy. The area is dominated by farmers who, in general, use the land for cultivation of a single crop, and in the punishing winters, the land is mostly brazen and devoid of any cultivation. It is in these times that the people choose to divulge all their energy and passion towards hockey. The barren land houses competitions between the best of the tribal hamlets, and the prize money is nothing more than a goat – “khasi”, as they call it.
The interest in hockey can be derived to the prevalence of missionary activities in the region. The British influence surely is the primary reason that directed the villagers towards the sport, making their hockey sticks from the tree branches and heating them over a fire to their desired crooked shape. Many would question why hockey is more important than cricket. I have no answer to that but to assume that fashioning a willow bat might seem like a tougher task, while crooked branches are easily available. And thus came about the immense love and fealty to the sport. So much so that kids seeking admission in schools have a prerequisite to own a hockey stick. Alliances and marriages are decided over hockey matches, and even disputes between villagers decided over hockey matches.
The hockey matches are intensely competed and over 200 teams take part in such competitions. It is about honour and respect, and for people who can’t boast of the material benefits, it is about all they have and represent – a game that defines and forms their identity. As Dilip fondly remembers traveling several miles to watch such matches, he states, “Hockey is in our blood. We have watched our fathers and grandfathers play.”
And it was amidst these battles of respect and pride that the competitive hockey player in Dilip came to the fore. The drive and desire to win were clearly visible when he charged down a Sohail Abbas penalty corner and was hit on the face. Now, the power and speed of a Sohail Abbas drag-flick are very well-known and nobody expected Dilip to stand back up so fast and insist on playing through the pain. It was being more rash than brave and the coaches were wiser as they took him off the field. He couldn’t do a Kumble, but his inner strength fueled the team to keep on fighting beyond the loss of their enigmatic star.
A leader of men, he was the team’s face and patriarch when there was no Dhanraj Pillay in the team. He led Indian hockey through its darkest hours, standing up a lone strider taking on the obstacles and leading the team to a 4th place finish in the 2002 Champions Trophy, a silver medal in the Asian Games and gold at the Asia Cup. He was a model professional, a man who had the ability as well as the attitude to impart strength to his followers. He didn’t shy away from doing the dirty work and was more than happy to let the others get the adulation. He was a star that the team needed, but one that the media refused to acknowledge and decorate. He earned the respect of his peers like the famed Dutch wizard Teun De Nooijer, who found Dilip halting many of his runs and offensive moves. And it was this respect that fueled this enigmatic hockey wizard.
If Dilip’s introduction to the sport was without much hype and fanfare, his exit was equally inconspicuous. His dream is over, but now as a legislator and a politician he is doing his best to promote the youngsters of the tribal hamlets in Sundergarh, his primary reason of getting into politics. Reticent as a politician, and an ever-shy man, he still remains my first hockey idol, and maybe my only one. He gave me a friend to cherish, and a game to love. He lived a dream and shared one too.