A group of six kids wearing bright green jerseys applauded the Punjab team after its 13-0 win against Uttarakhand and were waiting on the sidelines to shake hands with the players, including India captain Harmanpreet Singh.
These eight-to-10-year-olds are the designated ball boys at the Senior Nationals Hockey tournament in Chennai.
Upon speaking with their co-ordinator, Velmurugan, it is revealed that they have travelled from Kovilpatti as a part of their development program.
“I’m looking at this as an opportunity for the kids to better themselves. Most of the state and national players were once ball boys and I hope to see something like that from these kids. I was a ball boy in an all-India tournament, and I went on to win it as a player,” says Velmurugan, who currently works with the Hockey Unit of Tamil (HUTN).
Fourteen kids from various Hockey clubs in Kovilpatti were selected on the basis of their performance by the HUTN to attend this 12-day tournament.
“The first trait we look for in kids is their enthusiasm to learn something new about the sport and only then we look at their club level performance. Knowledge about the rules of hockey is also a criterion to get selected,” says Dr. C. Guru Chitra Shanmuga Bharathi, the secretary of Hockey Unit of Thoothukudi.
Three kids – Selva Mugil, Hariprasad and Santhosh – have already attended the previous edition of the Junior Nationals in Kovilpatti last year. However, this is the first time they’ve stepped out of their hometown.
The inquisitive bunch of kids is hoping to learn as much as possible.
“The type of hockey we see here is a lot different from what we are used to. It is relatively fast-paced. I’m a defender and I’ve been closely following the defenders here. Tamil Nadu and Punjab are well-equipped defensively, and I like their style of play,” says Kabilesh Sonu, a sixth-grade student who plays for the Pandavarmangalam hockey club.
With just one astro turf – the kind that is available at the Mayor Radhakrishnan Stadium – in Kovilpatti, these kids must rely on gravel fields due to slot unavailability. To increase the quality of the sport in the district, Guru calls for more astro turfs to be built.
“There’s a lot of difference between playing on an astro turf and playing on gravel fields. If these kids are to progress among the ranks, they need to get familiarised with the playing conditions,” adds Velmurugan.
All 14 of them hail from financially weak backgrounds, as their parents are daily wage workers. Most of them work in units that manufacture matchstick – a commodity that is often associated with their hometown.
But Velmurugan says the parents have always given their unconditional support to their wards and have encouraged them to take up the sport.
“Hockey is Kovilpatti’s heritage. Most of the people there know the rules of the sport. The parents of these kids try to chip in with funds, but the majority is contributed from the clubs and senior players who are pursuing government jobs and earning sufficient salaries,” Velmurugan remarked.
One of the prime reasons for their support is the robust hockey system in Kovilpatti. Velmurugan says, apart from school and district teams, there are 12 clubs back there that have churned out several players for the state.
The hockey club culture in Kovilpatti started even before India got its independence. Dr. Durairaj or “Kovilpatti’s father of hockey” as Guru calls him, was the reason why the sport started to flourish.
In the early 1940s, Durairaj, an avid hockey fan, came up with the concept of a unified body for like-minded people and formed the Kovilpatti Sports Club. Through the club, he paved the way for players to get national recognition and helped them get the required sponsorship.
Additionally, after seeing the lack of proper playing surfaces, Durairaj gifted a two-acre land to the people of Kovilpatti and helped lay a one-of-a-kind sand turf. However, due to ongoing legal issues regarding its documentation, the turf has remained dormant since 2008.
The turning point in Kovilpatti’s hockey came in the year 1952, when Durairaj invited the legendary Major Dhyan Chand to attend a local tournament.
Chand’s visit served as an inspiration to many budding talents. And, within a year’s time, through Chand’s contacts, players started to travel abroad for tournaments in countries like Germany.
And that sparked the formation of more such clubs within the district.
Ashok Memorial Hockey Club and Dr. Ambedkar Hockey Club are the two pioneering academies from which most talents are unearthed. A total of 11 players from these two clubs represented the state in the Junior and Sub-Junior Nationals in 2022.
In the current Tamil Nadu setup, there are two players – Mareeswaran Sakthivel and Dilipan – and Karthi Selvam, who trained with Kovilpatti’s Sports Hostel of Excellence. In the Junior Nationals last year, eight out of the playing 11 were from Kovilpatti.
The ongoing Senior Nationals is held amid uncertain weather conditions, with on and off rains. Players found it hard to balance on a slippery turf and lost their grip constantly. But that didn’t bother these tenacious kids, who were brisk on the field, serving ball after ball with ease.
As they were volunteering to clear the stagnated water on the stands at the end of the day’s play on Friday, Mugil, one of the ball boys, said with a smile,“So far, we’ve been constantly on the field. But Sunday is a rest day, so we’re hoping to explore Chennai.”