Tirkey latest ex-player in top job after becoming Hockey India president

Since Independence, India’s top three team sports have almost always been governed by politicians or administrators. But now, for the first time, the domestic governing bodies for cricket, football and hockey will be simultaneously headed by former players. This, after former India captain Tirkey on Friday became the new Hockey India president without the federation requiring to hold elections.

With the promise of ensuring “Indian hockey reaches new heights,” Tirkey was left as the sole candidate for the president’s post after the two other contestants, Uttar Pradesh’s Rakesh Katiyal and Jharkhand’s Bhola Nath Singh, withdrew their nominations on Friday.

As per Hockey India’s election bylaws, if the number of contesting candidates for any post turned out to be equal to or less than the number of posts, they would be deemed to have been elected unopposed. And so, not just Tirkey, the entire new committee that will run the game until 2026 was elected unopposed, with Bhola Nath being the new secretary-general.

Tirkey’s rise from being a shy teenager to a calm, sure-footed defender before becoming India captain, then turning to politics and sports administration post-retirement before eventually heading the national hockey body is nothing short of remarkable. His election as the president assumes even more significance given that in 97 years of organized hockey administration in India, there has never been a time when an international player has headed the sport.

“I understand that because of this, my election as the president is important. I know I am the right person for this job,” Tirkey, a former BJD MP and the chief of the Odisha hockey federation, told The Indian Express on Friday.

The 44-year-old’s election also underlines the growing influence of Odisha in hockey. The coastal state, since 2014, has been the nerve center of not just the Indian but the world game. One of the cradles of Indian hockey, Odisha is among the key backers, financially, of the national teams, is one of the main sponsors of world hockey and has hosted major international tournaments at Bhubaneswar’s Kalinga Stadium routinely over the last eight years.

With Tirkey at the helm, Odisha’s stature in Indian hockey will only get higher, especially with the World Cup – which will be co-hosted in Bhubaneswar and Rourkela – just around the corner.

Tirkey credited Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik’s ‘contribution to hockey’ for his election. “People saw the kind of work the state has put in for hockey in the last few years, be it constructing a world-class stadium or hosting tournaments. In Indian hockey, Odisha has delivered and that, I feel, has worked in my favor in a way,” the 45-year-old said.

Road ahead

One can sense the thrill in Tirkey’s voice and he is already teeming with ideas. The World Cup, to be held from January 13-29, 2023, will be among Tirkey’s top priorities, but his challenges go much beyond the fortnight-long tournament.

Turkey takes over Indian hockey at a critical stage. After years of decline, the men’s team has started to show signs of resurgence under Australian coach Graham Reid while the women, although relatively inconsistent, have punched above their weight in the last year and a half.

For the senior national teams, he identified goalkeeping and drag-flicking as two aspects where there’s scope for improvement. “These are two very important roles in modern hockey and right now, do we have enough quality players after PR Sreejesh or Harmanpreet Singh? We need to identify areas like these where we can improve and plug those gaps so we can actually reach the top.”

His focus, however, is already beyond the national team. “We have a huge volume of players at sub-junior and junior levels. So, the challenge for us is to identify the right players, focus on quality, not quantity, give them the right kind of coaching and prepare a proper pathway for them to develop a career in hockey. It’s about getting a system in place right from the sub-junior level to the national team.”

Tirkey also spoke about the need to revive some of the traditional hockey belts where the game has gone off the radar. For that, he might have to ensure international matches – which are one of the ways to popularize the sport – are spread across the country and not restricted only to Odisha, as has been the case in recent years.

In a sport where some of the recent presidents have been accused of being mere rubber stamps, how Tirkey performs and delivers will be keenly observed.

Other than Ganguly, Chaubey and Tirkey, former track and field athlete Adille Sumariwalla is the president of the Athletics Federation of India, meaning four important federations are now headed by former sportspersons.

“To be honest, I never thought these many sportspersons would govern important federations,” Tirkey said. “But well, it has happened. Now, it’s time to work.”

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