The 14th edition of the FIH Hockey Men’s World Cup, which will be held in Bhubaneswar from 28 November-16 December, is being seen as another feather in the cap for Odisha. The state hosted the Men’s Hockey Champions Trophy in 2014, and more recently, the Hockey World League Final last year. In the run-up to the event, the state has worked overtime to get things on track.

The Kalinga Stadium, built in 1978, has got a facelift for the occasion—A.R. Rahman and Shah Rukh Khan are expected to perform at the opening ceremony. Seating capacity has been increased from 9,000 to 15,000, new VIP and media boxes have been added, and floodlights upgraded. Three hundred new buses have been introduced to facilitate public transport access in the host city and neighbouring Cuttack and Puri.

But away from the glitz and glamour, it is in the tiny tribal district of Sundargarh, bordering Jharkhand, about 350km northwest of the capital Bhubaneswar, where the heart of Indian hockey lies. Sundargarh has produced several Olympians, the most famous of them being Dilip Tirkey, former team India captain and now a member of Parliament. “You will not see a single boy or girl going to school without a hockey stick hanging from his/her bag," Tirkey says. “Some of them learn to hold hockey sticks even before they go to school." The Indian team for the World Cup has two players from Sundargarh: Birendra Lakra and Amit Rohidas.

It is in the dust bowls of Sundargarh that you get a sense of Odisha’s obsession with hockey. The Khasi Cup, an inter-village tribal hockey tournament, dates back decades. Tournaments are played through the year. Until the start of the 21st century, some tribes of the state used to play barefoot with bamboo rods for sticks and a piece of fruit wrapped in cloth for ball. Although jerseys and professional hockey gear are part of the game now, two things haven’t changed. They venue—they still play on dusty fields as opposed to an astroturf—and the prize, a goat (or khasi) for the winning team, and a chicken for the runners-up. “If you give us gold or silver, we won’t take it," says local coach Ranjit Kindo. “It’s just the goat we play for."

Players and students from Sundargarh will be among the thousands who will travel to Bhubaneswar to watch the sport’s biggest event. And the Indian team will need every bit of crowd support in this tournament.

India won their only World Cup in 1975 under Ajit Pal Singh’s captaincy. In fact, no Asian team has won the title since Pakistan in 1994. The gap is largely due to the robust domestic structure of European hockey in contrast to that on the subcontinent, which needs a massive overhaul.

India are in Pool C with Rio Olympics silver medallists Belgium, as well as Canada and South Africa. There are 16 teams participating (in four groups) in the event. The format allows group toppers to go directly to the final eight. The bottom teams get eliminated and the second and third placed teams in the pools play crossover matches for a place in the last eight.

India’s Akashdeep Singh fighting for the ball with Germany’s Johannes Grobe during their third place play-off in the Hockey World League, in December 2017. Photo: Getty Images
India’s Akashdeep Singh fighting for the ball with Germany’s Johannes Grobe during their third place play-off in the Hockey World League, in December 2017. Photo: Getty Images

It is here that the real test will start. India recently finished joint winners with Pakistan at the Asian Champions Trophy, but the team’s bronze medal finish at the Asian Games in August has given Hockey India officials enough reasons to worry. In the Asian Games semi-final against lower-ranked Malaysia, India played one of their worst matches in recent times. The passing was loose, individual glory dominated team play and India gave the opposition enough time to make a comeback and score late goals. Former captain Sardar Singh, who announced his international retirement after the tournament, has warned team members of this complacency. “The most crucial area is central midfield, this is where the opposition puts most pressure," he says. “There will be mistakes, but we have to keep them as less as possible in our half. Against European teams, we can’t afford to make mistakes. They will take advantage of us easily."

The work in the midfield will largely be done by Sardar’s long time protégé Manpreet Singh, India’s captain for the tournament. The team is a mix of experienced players and youngsters but, unfortunately, is infamous for giving in under pressure in crucial moments. “Overall, there are enough concerns about Indian hockey at the moment," says former captain and legend Dhanraj Pillay. “I think fitness-wise, we are on a par with some of the top teams now, but where are the skills? The level has gone down quite a bit. Now they play mechanically, it is laptop hockey. Our boys are trying to adapt to it, and (coach) Harendra (Singh) is doing his best, but I don’t know how successful they will be."

Even before the tournament begins, it’s the defending champions Australia, European champions the Netherlands, and Olympic silver medallists Belgium, who go are the favourites. For India to achieve anything out of the ordinary, the men in blue will have to up their game. Their first match is against South Africa on 28 November.

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