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When the Indian team won their bronze play-off match against England at the 2013 International Hockey Federation (FIH) Junior World Cup on 4 August, few celebrated as hard as the villagers in Sundargarh, a tribal district in Orissa, and with good reason. This was the first time that India had won a medal at the competition, or even gone beyond the quarter-final stage, and four of the girls in the team came from Sundargarh.

Deep Grace Ekka, 19, is one of the four. A sprightly and strongly-built defender, Ekka is known in the team for her cheerfulness and her abilities to lift the spirit of her teammates when the chips are down. Sitting in the quiet lobby of a small hotel in New Delhi, Ekka does not hide her restlessness.

“Of course I want to be in my village right now," Ekka says with a laugh. “I am missing out on all the fun. They are cooking good food. There’s hockey matches being played in the village grounds in celebration. There’s music and dancing."

Ekka comes from Lulkidi in Sundargarh, and like her teammates from Orissa, she is part of a deep and long-running hockey tradition in the tribal belt.

Namita Toppo. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
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Namita Toppo. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

There was never any other path for Ekka but hockey—her older brother Dinesh is a professional player, and has played for India, her father, a farmer, like most others in her village is mad about the game.

“No one ever told me ‘don’t play hockey’," Ekka says. “My parents told me that they would do anything to make sure I became a player. It would have been trouble if I didn’t become one."

Ekka was 13 when she was selected to join the residential Sundargarh Sports Hostel, run by the state government. It is one of the three premier hockey training centres in the district, along with Panposh Sports Hostel, near Rourkela, and the Steel Authority of India (SAIL) Hockey Academy in Rourkela. All three have AstroTurfs.

Namita Toppo’s village, Rajgampur Jauragaon, is an hour from Rourkela, and she has a large family—the 19-year-old defender is the seventh of nine children. Every one of the Toppo siblings is or has been at least a state-level athlete. Her elder brother Dileep has played for the junior national team and is in contention for the senior team.

“You can say that I had no choice either," Toppo says. “My brother took me for a selection trial to Panposh when I was 11, and that was it."

Toppo’s first year at the hostel was miserable. She missed her family, and the hours of training was no fun. But when she was picked for the state’s Under-13 team, and went out to play a tournament, everything changed.

“Suddenly I wanted to do nothing else but play hockey, play in tournaments, go on tours with my team," Toppo says. “I felt like I would do anything to keep playing in the team."

It’s a desire that’s never left Toppo. She made it to the junior national team in 2011, and even got a sniff of senior team action last year. All four Sundargarh girls in the junior hockey team are part of the senior team’s core probables list as well.

Toppo says hockey is an obsession in Sundargarh, where hundreds of village tournaments are played each year. These are called “khasi" tournaments, because the winning prize is often a goat. In January this year, former India captain Dileep Tirkey, who is also from Sundargarh, organized the Sundargarh Rural Hockey Olympiad. Seven-hundred teams played in the tournament, which ran for two months.

Marriages often involve hockey games between the two families. Every religious festival is marked with a tournament.

“When there’s hockey on TV, no one watches anything else," Toppo says.

Hockey sticks are common now, despite the fact that Sundargarh is one of the poorest districts in India. The large number of international players Sundargarh has produced ensures plenty of hand-me-downs. But Toppo says most villagers also make their own sticks, a skill that has been passed down from generations.

Since the beginning, Indian hockey’s success has been scripted by players from the tribal areas of Orissa, Bihar, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh. Jaipal Singh Munda, who captained India to its first Olympic gold at the 1928 Amsterdam Games, and set into motion an unbeaten Olympic run that lasted almost 30 years and got India six golds, was from a village in the district of Ranchi. Michael Kindo, who was part of the 1972 Olympic bronze and the 1975 World Cup winning squads, is from Simdega district in Jharkhand and now runs the SAIL academy in Rourkela.

Ekka and Toppo are the newest flag-bearers of this enduring legacy.

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