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In Jharkhand's tribal villages, young boys and girls have always played hockey for the love of the game, often playing for little more than a goat as prize money. The launch of the Hockey India League and the Ranchi Rhinos franchise may finally help them dream big
The referee's whistle echoes in Miledih village and 32 players converge around the centre line, gazing intensely at each other. West Singhbhum district's Tokad village is playing Khunti district's Lipidih and the two teams form semi-circles on either side of the line, drawn with chalk powder. Two villagers stand on this line as they engage in their brief stare-down.
"The villagers are part of the organising committee of the tournament. They will throw out any player from a different village. This is to make sure the teams do not bring along players from villages other than their own," Sashibhushan Mundu whispers from the sideline, never taking his eyes off the players. "They have been playing against each other for so many years and are best equipped to catch the other team cheating," he says. Sashibhushan is part of the 15-member entourage that is accompanying the blue-clad Tokad team.
There are no cheats in this match, so the referee nods to Soma Hembrom, the timekeeper for the day. The whistle blows. Tokad team's Jithen Mundu's hockey stick slaps the worn, white cork ball. The second match of the four-day 'Hockey Tournament Organised by the Youngsters of Bandhgaon Panchayat on the Occasion of Republic Day'—an impromptu name that Soma comes up with later—has begun.
Orissa's Sundergarh and Jharkhand's Ranchi have been credited with being the cradles of hockey in the eastern part of the country. All over the jungles of the 65,000-sq-km Chota Nagpur plateau, barefooted villagers carrying locally-made sticks have been kicking up a storm in dustbowl-maidans such as this one in Miledih. These are murga-khasi (translation: chicken-goat) tournaments, the mention of which brings smiles and descriptions. Following a tradition whose beginnings none remember—like the many hockey tournaments across villages in Khunti, Simdega and Gumla districts of Jharkhand—the winner of the 16-team competition in Miledih, the West Singhbhum village that is hosting the tournament, will get a goat along with a Rs 2,000 cash prize.
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