The undemocratic dominance of metropolitan cities need to end when it comes to measuring the popularity of different fields of sports.
Shouts and cheers echoed in the still morning air. The football lay quietly in one corner of the net. The sun was not very high in the sky. It was just seven in the morning. A circle of boys and girls ranging from six to well into their twenties, cheered the players as they did their best to outdo the manoeuvres of their opponents in a game of football. Some of the onlookers even had grey streaks in their hair and the look on their face plainly said that they were enjoying it as much as the youngsters. I was on a visit to Jamshedpur, my home town located in East Singhbhum and could not help joining the spectators. The atmosphere was palpable with excitement. It did not matter to the onlookers or players that this was no English Premiere League and the stadium barely a field with patches of flattened grass and mud.
There were no chairs to sit but the crowds had come up with intriguing solutions right from bedsheets to plastic stools to perch on. A chat with some of the morning joggers revealed that these youngsters make their way to the field every alternate day without fail, even the chilling winters and rains do not deter them.
Such sights are common in the city dominated by tribal population. At times one can watch players in team colours and at others, they can be found playing football and hockey in their everyday clothes just for the fun of the game.
The lack of infrastructure and proper playing conditions do not bother these enthusiastic lovers of sports. Apart from football and hockey, athletes trying their luck at formal and informal meets can be witnessed in the city as well. I am yet to see them competing without a sizeable crowd to cheer along unlike the metro cities where athletic meets seldom secure spectators of any substantial proportion. To someone who has not grown in these parts, it can be beguiling to see this sheer ebullience for athletics, football and hockey in a country where it is claimed that cricket is the only sport which finds favour with the masses.
A surmise appears unbidden to mind- might be we are looking at the wrong places and our scope of masses is abysmally narrow minded. For some reason, analysts have taken to base their assumption on the degree of popularity of a trend on the basis of what happens in metros and larger cities of India. What is forgotten either unconsciously or conveniently is that metropolitan cities form a considerably tiny part of India’s population and they cannot certainly cast the deciding vote either way when it comes to defining trends or scouting for talent.
Hockey, football and athletics have found a lot of favour with the people playing as well watching sports in the state of Jharkhand. The athletes and sportspersons from the State have shown extraordinary prowess for decades. In 1928, when India bagged a Gold Medal in hockey at the Olympics, the team was led by none other than Jaipal Singh Munda belonging to this very region. More recently, Boxer Birju Saha, Archer Archana Kumari and others have followed suit. To top it all, 2014 witnessed 18 teenage girls from Jharkhand on their way to Minnesota, US to take part in the Schwan’s USD Cup. These footballers were being trained since 2009.
The talent that has come forth from the state in the past and is still making its way to national and international games elucidates the existence of a huge talent pool. Given the lack of infrastructure and coaching, youngsters are still making the best possible use of whatever assistance is available to them to hone their skills.
India has always been known as a cricketing nation and our abysmal performance in athletics, not to mention, football and hockey is indeed heart breaking, especially when we stop to think of the youngsters with an aptitude for these forms of sports in the remote corners of the country. The tribal population has a natural build for sports. Professional help with technique coupled with this natural attribute can surely do wonders.
Development of sports in the State will also come as a succour for the tribal population which is economically disadvantaged. Limited facilities for education and lack of employment opportunities have forced several from the tribal areas to migrate in search of work. Many of them end up being daily wage earners at construction sites, some others go to work in hotels. The plight of women is worse off. Human trafficking is rampant in the State. The destinations are cities such as Delhi and Mumbai where women are often forced into domestic work and sex trade. Not all of them can be saved but some can surely benefit if they were given options.
At present there are some of the NGOs and corporate groups who are working with these tribal groups to identify talents but sadly, they are few and far. For every single talent that manages to reach the sporting arena there are hundreds that loom in anonymity in the absence of opportunities. As we envisage a new path for sports in India, it is also time to map out areas that can produce talents and appreciate sports other than cricket with a more open-minded approach.