Salima Tete took her first steps in hockey on a dusty ground speckled with stones, in a small hamlet in Jharkhand’s Simdega district. “My friends and I would remove the stones ourselves, try to make the ground as smooth as possible and mark temporary goalposts,” the teenager recalls. In the absence of proper hockey blades, they would use wooden sticks. It usually doesn’t take much for a game of hockey to kick-off in her part of the world.
The sport, brought to India’s heartland by Christian missionaries before Independence, is entrenched in the region’s soil. The first ever Indian hockey team at the Olympics, at the 1928 Amsterdam Games, was captained by Jaipal Singh Munda, born in present-day Jharkhand.
Since then, Jharkhand, which earned statehood in 2000, has produced a number of international players, including Sylvanus Dung Dung, Michael Kindo, Sumrai Tete, and siblings Bimal and Asunta Lakra. Currently, two players from the stat—Tete and Nikki Pradhan—are in Indian women’s core probable group of 24 for the Tokyo Olympics.
While Tete is from Simdega, Pradhan was born in Hesal, a tiny village in Jharkhand’s Khunti district. Both the places are known to be Naxal strongholds and lie in India’s impoverished eastern tribal belt. They are also hotbeds for hockey.
“The conflict doesn’t really affect the life of the villagers,” says 27-year-old Pradhan, who became the first female hockey player from Jharkhand to represent India at the Olympics in 2016. “But I do feel scared sometimes to go back home. My (three) sisters and brother have all settled down in Ranchi and I usually go there whenever I get a break from the camp.” Only her parents live in the village, where most houses still don’t have running water or toilets.
While growing up, Pradhan’s mother cared for the family farm and the children, since her father was away from home most of the time due to his job in the Bihar Police. Sometimes she and her siblings would help with farm work. The kids in their village would also work on other fields to earn some extra money. “My eldest daughter, Shashi, was the first from the family to play hockey,” her father Soma Pradhan told Hindustan Times in 2017. “When she demanded a hockey stick, I discouraged her from playing the game. I couldn’t say that I couldn’t afford to buy a stick. Poor girl worked as a labourer and bought a stick from the money she earned.”
Pradhan owes her love for the sport to coach Dasrath Mahto, who is credited with revolutionising women’s hockey in the village. “I was not too keen on hockey when I initially started playing it,” says Pradhan, now a mainstay in the national team. “I was quite slight, still am, but I was scared of getting hit with the hockey stick at that time. But my coach told me to persist with it. In 2006, when I went to the Bariatu Girls hockey centre in Ranchi, he was the one who gave me my first pair of shoes and hockey stick.”
It was the beginning of a long and arduous journey, riddled with failures and rejections for Pradhan. She was dropped from the centre in 2008 and had to shift base to Bhopal for a while. The midfielder then made the Indian junior national team in 2011 but was once again out of the national set-up in 2013.
“I returned to the Indian national team through open trials in August 2015,” says Pradhan. This was just in time for the Rio Olympics, where the Indian women’s hockey team was making an appearance after 36 years.
Though there weren’t big felicitations waiting for her when she returned as an Olympian, Pradhan says she was happy to play a small part in the sport’s legacy in the state. “Hockey is popular in Jharkhand,” she said. “But it went through a lull for a few years. In 2016, after I played Olympics, things started picking up again.”
Two years later, Jharkhand enjoyed another breakthrough. The state team won the Junior Women’s National Championship, beating four-time champions Haryana 4-2 in the final. Tete played an integral part in that tournament and went on to lead India to a silver medal at the 2018 Youth Olympics in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
“I am the first player from my village to represent India in internationals,” says the 19-year-old proudly. “Everyone in our village plays hockey, even though we have no facilities. My father played the game; he would take us to watch tournaments in villages nearby.” The daughter of a farmer, Tete, like Pradhan, grew up on subsidised rice and hockey dreams.
“Most players in Jharkhand come from humble families,” she says. “Hockey gives us purpose. Even though I never really thought as far as making it to the Indian team, I always had the belief.”
But it wasn’t until she joined the sports hostel in Simdega that Tete got the opportunity to play on astro-turf, the surface that international hockey is played on.“It was very difficult in the beginning,” she recalls. “It was very fast. It was very physical. I didn’t have a clue how to play on it.” It took her a few months to find her feet and learn how to control the zipping white ball on artificial grass.
Though Tete doesn’t have an imposing physical presence, what she lacks in size she makes up in speed and skill. One of the most promising talents in the country, Tete has quickly risen through the ranks. She broke into junior national team in 2016. By the time Jharkhand defended their Junior National title in 2019, Tete had already transitioned to the senior national camp.
“It was good to have Nikki didi there (in the team),” she says. “She is one of the key players in the team and I draw a lot of confidence from her. She supports the younger players a lot, and if we make mistakes she corrects us.”
Tete was part of the team that beat the US 6-5 on aggregate to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics. It was the first time that the Indian women’s team would be competing in successive Olympic Games. Her parents caught glimpses of the historic campaign on TV screen.
“They are very proud but they haven’t seen any of my matches live,” says Tete. Her elder sisters, who had started playing the game with her, are married and busy with their lives.
“I feel good,” the teenager says. “Having come this far I want to keep getting better and hopefully inspire more girls from the state to continue with the sport.”
With less than 100 days to go, the focus is now firmly on the Tokyo Olympics. Though Pradhan made her Olympic debut in 2016, it didn’t turn out to be a memorable one as India couldn’t register a single win in their five matches and finished at the bottom of Group B.
“I hadn’t played too many international matches going into the Rio Olympics,” says Pradhan. “For me it was very new. That was like my initiation into world hockey. Now I have a lot more experience.”
Since the beginning of 2021 the Indian team has gone on exposure trips to Germany and Argentina to fast-track them into competitive mode after losing almost a year to the pandemic. In the last four years, Hockey India has brought in experts to closely monitor the players’ training, fitness and diet to nudge them as close as possible to the world powers.
“Right now all we are focused on is the Olympics,” says Tete, without missing a beat. “The target is to bring back a medal for India.”
Deepti Patwardhan is a freelance sportswriter based in Mumbai.