(Left to right) Deep Grace Ekka, Lilima Minz, Anupa Barla and Namita Toppo at Rourkela railway station after their return from Germany Picture by Uttam Kumar Pal
Bhubaneswar, Aug. 24: Hockey talents from the state are blossoming on the national and international stage and much of this is because of better infrastructure and change in mindset.
Four Odisha girls were in the Indian squad that created history in Germany earlier this month by winning the bronze medal in the junior women’s hockey world cup. They defeated England 3-2 in the penalty shootout.
The four girls — Namita Toppo, Lilima Minz, Anupa Barla and Deep Grace Ekka — come from tribal families in Sundargarh district. While Ekka trains at Sports Authority of India sports complex in the district, the other three train at Panposh Hockey Hostel. All the four play for the state and the national team.
Ever since their victory, accolades and cash rewards have been flowing in for the girls. They received a grand welcome at Rourkela railway station where their coaches, local politicians and hockey followers came to greet them. Chief minister Naveen Patnaik has declared a prize of Rs 1.25 lakh to each of them. The Union sports ministry and Hockey India have announced cash rewards, too.
Sundargarh has been known for producing great hockey players. While Olympians Dilip Tirkey, Michael Kindo, Ignace Tirkey, Prabodh and many others have donned the national jersey in men’s hockey, Jyoti Sunita Kullu and Subhadra Pradhan from the state have led the national women’s team.
“There is already a synthetic hockey turf in the stadium and another is nearing completion. We have six to eight hours of training everyday. There’s no doubt that the players are extremely talented and work hard on their fitness. Besides, the kind of support we get from the state government and the district administration is commendable,” said head coach at Panposh Stadium Amulya Nand Bihari. Bihari is one of the four coaches, who train 48 players — 24 men and 24 women — at the stadium.
“About five years ago, when I started playing, there were hardly any girl playing hockey. Since then, at least three girls from my village have started training at the stadium. Boys had always been encouraged to play hockey, and now, girls are getting a lot of encouragement, too. My mother was very supportive of my pursuits,” said Anupa Barla, 19, who believes that the training given in the state is on a par with any other Indian state.
Though Sundargarh has produced a lot of quality hockey players, experts believe that a large pool of talent remains untapped as the game has not grown uniformly in other districts. Even Cuttack and Bhubaneswar have not been very successful in producing quality players. So far, around 40 women hockey players from the state have represented the country in both junior and senior levels.
The state-of-the-art hockey stadium with a pink-and-blue synthetic surface that was inaugurated at Kalinga Stadium sports complex last month became the fifth synthetic turf for hockey in the state. The other four are in Sundargarh district.
Hockey Odisha secretary Pratap Satpathy believes that a lot needs to be done for female players in terms of incentives. Citing the example of Haryana, he said: “Haryana announced Rs 5 lakh award for each player, while Odisha is giving only Rs 1.25 lakh. Many players are willing to play for other states. Players must be bestowed with better rewards and high-paying jobs or they will go to other states,” said Satpathy.
Most players get jobs under sports quota in central government sectors or national corporates, and hence, discontinue representing the state. “The state government and private players should come forward to offer jobs to our female players, so that they can continue to bring laurels for the state,” he said.
Also, a Hockey Odisha official said the state sports department was not seeking their opinion about development of the game in the state.
However, the sports department sounded positive about the growth of women’s hockey in Odisha.
“An academy is coming up at Kalinga Stadium. It will be set up in association with Tata in a private-public-partnership mode. Also, it’s not just local players, who are training at Sundargarh. Instead of having turfs and hostels in all the districts, we have feeder centres and talent scouting teams to spot the bright young talents,” said D.V. Swamy, director of the sports and youth services department. He was quick to dismiss cold vibes between Hockey Odisha and the department stating that the association’s feedback was always welcome.
Far away from the debate, Namita Toppo, Lilima Minz, Anupa Barla and Deep Grace Ekka are training in Patiala with the Indian squad for the upcoming Asia Cup.