A cluster of hockey sticks, one of them made of wood, lean against rows of books in the airy room of Pratap Chandra Kumar, teacher-in-charge of Gamhariyaâ€™s Government Upgraded Middle School. â€œNow their interest is not just in academics; hockey is also taking up a lot of their time,â€ said Kumar, referring to his 139 students where girls are a majority.
Some 20km away, near the community centre of Gutuhatu village, boys and girls in school uniform play separately on a mud patch. Dust eddies around bare feet, no shin guards offer protection from the hard hockey ball and training ground cones serve as goalposts but it is evident they are having fun.
These supervised sessions are held twice weekly for children in the 10-14 age-group in 65 schools in Jharkhandâ€™s Khunti district through a collaboration of Collectives for Integrated Livelihood Initiatives (CInI), an associate organisation of Tata Trusts, and the hockey academy run by former Dutch great Floris Jan Bovelander.
Some 50km from Jharkhandâ€™s capital Ranchi, hockey internationals Pushpa Pradhan, Nikki Pradhan, Manohar Topno, Sylvanus Dung Dung, and Sumrai Tete matter as much if not more than cricket icon MS Dhoni here. Better livelihood and improved education through other CInI initiatives have led to focus on quality of life and for that, hockey provides an appropriate trigger in this region.
â€œHamare bachche mey se Nikki Pradhan banana hai, (we must get another Nikki Pradhan from one of our kids),â€ said hockey trainer Jasmani Turu, a former Bihar sub-junior captain and a University of Ranchi blue. Nikki Pradhan is the first from Jharkhand to have played in the Olympicsâ€™ womenâ€™s hockey competition.
With smiles brighter than the Palash flaming through central India now, the children say when they are not playing hockey, they prefer football. â€œI think the enthusiasm for hockey is the same among these children as in my country,â€ said Bovelander on Skype.
It is this enthusiasm the initiative seeks to tap into. Bovelander spoke of getting players from this project into the Jharkhand team in four years. Former India captain Sandeep Singh, who is a consultant, said he hopes players from this programme would be in the 2020 Junior World Cup squad.
Plans to that end include not only organising an inter-school league and a hockey festival at the grassroots but also setting up a regional development centre in Khunti and a residential academy in Jamshedpur. At every level, technical inputs from Bovelanderâ€™s company would be sought.
Since the partnership began, the Dutch coaches come every six weeks to train Indians, mostly state level players from this region. Called Master Trainers and paid R 8000 per month, they train the school children. Among the Dutch present this week was Merel de Blaeij, 30, who was part of the 2012 Olympic gold medal winning team.
â€œThe Dutch coaches help us teach the children right,â€ said Turu. â€œIt also means unlike us, they are introduced to the European style from an early age,â€ said Singh.
At best, only a few will become hockey players from this programme. The initiativeâ€™s success thus hinges as much on how hockey teaches children life skills, boosts self-confidence and treat triumph and disaster the same. â€œFrom my first batch, only three played for India. But hockey helped all of them get a life,â€ said Singh.
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