Odishasports: On May 2nd 2010, one of the world’s most dependable defender, Dilip Tirkey, announced his retirement from professional field hockey in front of a handful of journalists at the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar. Dilip Tirkey’s 15 years long career came to an end. There were no official dignitaries, fans and long speeches detailing the highs and lows, there were a two-line announcement delivered by Dilip Tirkey himself. The stadium didn’t even have a hockey turf at that time, and players would practice in the makeshift grounds of the stadium.
Ten years later, the same Kalinga stadium, revamped and justified Bhubaneswar’s ‘hockey capital of the world’ tag, saw rousing applause for players from across the world. The State government was sponsoring it. He was standing in front of this marvelous stadium, with finest turf and all facilities, Odisha hockey’s best-known face, though, remains unchanged. Dilip Tirkey is humble, almost uncomfortable, one would say, with praise or fame.
While Dilip Tirkey wore the blue jersey of the Indian national hockey team, his swift footwork and wizardly interception of the ball put him in the ranks of the world’s best defenders. He is the first player in world to have played 400 international matches. Dilip Tirkey remains, even after a decade of retirement, the highest capped (maximum international appearances) Indian player.
He took questions, paused for a bit, before replying in a measured manner. There was a cautious effort to avoid any controversy. He has a well-furnished room that has all the trophies that marked his achievements in hockey. The Arjuna Award kept on the table beside the comfortable sofa Dilip Tirkey sat on. Tirkey turned down an opportunity to train young Dutch players so as not to jeopardise his preparations for the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup, came as a surprise to him.
For many a youngster in the tribal-dominated areas of northern Odisha, Dilip Tirkey’s home district of Sundargarh, Hindi rather than Odia is the language of choice. Dilip Tirkey was born on November 25, 1977, to an Oraon tribe couple living in Saunamara village of Balisankara block in Sundargarh. In this northernmost district of Odisha adjoining Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, with its beautiful waterfall and deep sal forest, hockey is more popular than India’s national obsession: cricket. Since the late 1980s, Sundargarh has been known as Odisha’s ‘nursery of hockey. How hockey came to these parts is not well documented, but according to hockey historian K Arumugam, the game was probably introduced to locals by European missionaries of the 20th century.
In these tribal belts extending to parts of neighbouring Sambalpur and Deogarh districts, every young man is expected to be able to handle a stick, playing barefoot on grassy fields. Villages are divided into ‘tolis’ which compete against one another aiming to win the prize which, when there is one, is a goat. Locals will tell you it is taken seriously enough for marriage brokers to be unenthused about any young man not interested in the game. Dilip Tirkey played for the ‘Babu Toli’ consisting mostly of Oram Christians. The second of five children, Dilip Tirkey, had another reason to pick up the hockey stick early. His father, Vincent Tirkey who worked for the CRPF, played for the State too. (Tirkey’s younger twin brothers Anoop and Ajit would also take up the game, and represented the Indian Railways.
That the son was just as talented or would surpass his father was noted by Ajay Kumar Bansal. Bansal had quit a government job in Haryana to join the Sports Authority of India and arrived at Bhawani Shankar High School in Sundargarh in 1989 as the new hockey coach.