Bring back the glory years of Kodagu hockey

Bring back the glory years of Kodagu hockey

no photo

A file image of Kodava Hockey Festival.



The next time you sip on a piping hot filter coffee that touches your soul, make sure you thank the Kodavas from Kodagu for producing one of the finest blends of Arabica and Robusta beans in the country.

Such is the craze and demand for this particular product from Kodagu that the small region close to Bengaluru produces 130,000 MTs of coffee per year, which is 40% of India's entire production. To say that coffee runs in their veins won't be a wrong statement to make, but maybe an incomplete one. The only missing link here would be hockey, which just like the coffee, is something that Kodavas immensely pride themselves on. 

So with that coffee mug in hand, scroll through the pages of Indian hockey's history, and you'll find that Kodavas, for generations, have been the pillars of the supply chain to the national team, producing over 50 players for the country. That is huge for a clan with a population touch over 3.5 lakh. Right from the '70s, it wasn't a rare sight to see two-three Kodavas make a distinct place for themselves in the team. The magic that Olympians MP Ganesh and BP Govinda weaved on the field for the country is something that the grandfathers would tell the kids back home, which would inspire the gen-next, MM Somaya and AB Subaiah, to pick up the hockey stick. The baton would then pass on to Arjun Halappa, who would later groom players of the caliber of VR Raghunath and SV Sunil. In short, an Indian team was incomplete without the expertise, skill, aggression, artistry, and dominating presence of a Kodagu player. 

Coorg, an anglicized version of Kodagu, is also home to the world's grandest hockey tournament, the Kodava Hockey Festival, which sees participation from over 200 teams across age groups. The tournament, a brainchild of former banker late PM Kutappa, was kick-started in 1997 with the dual purpose of paying rich tribute to the sport in the region, and bringing together players in thousands, only to identify the best talents for the country. Close to two decades later, the deep-rooted hold of Kodagu players had only become stronger in the national team. There was a period from the start of Asia Cup 2013 to the Rio Olympics 2016, where five Kodava players -- Raghunath, Sunil, SK Uthappa, Nikin, and Nithin Thimmaiah were regulars on the Indian side. 

Unfortunately, the times have changed drastically now. While there is enough stimulus for the coffee production in the region to grow, not much progress has been made on the hockey front. No new players have emerged from the region, good enough to be a part of the national setup; the others have now retired or are just past their prime. The team that won the Junior World Cup in 2016, in Lucknow, had no Kodava player. Even as the senior team was able to shed the tag of not being able to win an Olympics medal since Moscow 1980 -- by clinching a bronze in Tokyo 2020 -- no Kodava was part of history being made. Forward Sunil, who had been a prolific scorer for India, missed the flight for Tokyo as an untimely injury made him unfit for selection. 

Hockey India recently announced a 30-member core group for the national camp in Bengaluru, which did not feature any Kodagu player either. With Sunil announcing his retirement last week, there isn't a player from the region -- it looks like -- who would get a chance to represent India anytime soon. Now call it unfortunate, unexpected, or unprecedented, that is the harsh reality, and will take some time to get used to. With the Indian team on a high after the Tokyo victory, all is certainly well for Indian hockey, but it is the long Kodagu legacy that has taken a hit; a legacy, where it was said: Throw a stone, and it will either hit a soldier or a hockey player. 

Look at Punjab. Since time immemorial, the state has been producing players of high repute in bulk, way above what the other states have done, put together. But there was always a need for a specialized center, where all the budding champions from Punjab could be groomed under one roof. Responding to the need of the hour, the state helped establish the Surjit Singh Academy, Jalandhar, in 2005; the academy where eight players from the victorious Tokyo 2020 team learned the tricks of the trade. It is only beyond one's imagination, how much it would have added to the team's advantage, to have such a large chunk of players from one academy. 

In the East, we have Odisha, which has a rich tradition of producing solid defenders for the country. Sundergarh, a small town in the state with a population of over 45,000 only, has a hockey tradition second to none. This Olympics too, Birendra Lakra and Amit Rohidas, were in the Indian team and kept up the tradition of the land that has produced athletes of the class of Dilip Tirkey, Ignace Tirkey, Lazarus Barla, Jyoti Sunita Kullu, and Sunita Lakra. Deep Grace Ekka, the senior-most defender in the women's team, showed in the quarterfinal against Australia, why is it practically impossible to get past her. All this is a result of systematic planning by the concerned authorities in the state, who are now looking at expanding infrastructure to produce more hockey players. Sundergarh alone has three academies, and as per a report, all the 17 blocks in the district will get a synthetic turf soon. Plus, the Odisha government has been investing heavily in the Indian hockey teams -- both men and women -- and has been maintaining the best hockey ground -- Kalinga Stadium. 

Even though there is no dearth of raw talent in Coorg, it is the outlook towards hockey, sports in general, that is hampering the returns, believes BJ Kariappa, the coach of the national junior team. Back in the '80s and the '90s, while hockey was a compulsory sport in schools, it is not the case now. "Back in the day, all the schools had hockey teams. But the immense academic pressure had reduced the focus on hockey considerably," Kariappa tells SportsCafe in an exclusive interaction. 

Explaining the issue, Kariappa added, "these days even the parents don't want their wards in hockey, and the emphasis is only on getting good grades, which in turn would help them get good jobs. That was not the trend during our times. If at all any sport is considered, is cricket. The financial aspect makes it worth pursuing. Also, the lack of state-level or district-level tournaments has done the damage."

Visibly so, a host of factors have brought Kodagu hockey, to where it is today, but the Tokyo bronze medal could just be the change the sport in the region demands or so hopes Kariappa. "I think one way to look at the medal is that the interest in hockey will come back. The coaches here too will put in additional efforts, and there will be a few more tournaments happening hopefully. Even the state and the Centre are putting in efforts to revive hockey in Coorg. So let's hope the results will come in the future."

Without an iota of doubt, 2008 has to be the darkest phase for our hockey when the national team had failed to qualify for the Olympics for the first time in 80 years. But to pick up bits from there, and get a medal in 12 years' time was truly special. Even though the severity of this, and the hockey crisis in Kodagu could be at different levels altogether, but there certainly is learning, which could help put Coorg on the hockey map of India once again.

Get updates! Follow us on

Open all