Behind Drona award, unwanted piece of land that became hockey hotspot

On Saturday, 17 years later, Siwach, who had earlier won an Arjuna Award, received the prestigious Dronacharya Award, making her one of the few recipients of the National Sports Award as both a player and now a coach.

It was once grazing land. It is now a breeding ground for some of India’s most talented hockey players.

The transformation began with a disagreement. In 2004, while travelling to Sonepat, former India captain Pritam Rani Siwach spotted a parcel of unkempt land large enough to play hockey. One of the mainstays of the national team, Siwach was entering the twilight of her career.

For a player who was rated highly for her leadership qualities and game intelligence, coaching seemed to be a logical step. “So, I asked my husband if it was a good idea to use that ground to train women players from the region,” Siwach says.

Siwach’s husband Kuldeep, also a former hockey player, had been a rock of support for her, all through her career. But that day, he sounded dismissive. “He replied, ‘Are you mad?’ He ignored my idea completely,” Siwach says. “I was very hurt. At that moment, I decided no matter what happens, even if I’ll have to fight with my husband, I’ll work in women’s hockey. That’s how it started.”

On Saturday, 17 years later, Siwach, who had earlier won an Arjuna Award, received the prestigious Dronacharya Award, making her one of the few recipients of the National Sports Award as both a player and now a coach.

And her academy has become one of the key feeder grounds for the national team.

Three players in India’s Tokyo Olympics squad — Neha Goyal, Nisha Warsi and Sharmila Devi — began their careers at the modest facility in Sonepat, just off the Grand Trunk Road. Siwach’s son Yashdeep, who too learnt the art from her mother, has been selected for the Junior World Cup, which will be held in Bhubaneswar from November 24 to December 5.

“I am getting goosebumps. It’s been an unbelievable year. First, it was the performance of the women’s team at the Olympics, then Yashdeep’s selection for the Junior World Cup team and now, the Dronacharya Award,” she says. “Too many good things are happening at one time, it would have been nice if it came in installments. But as my husband says, this is the reward for years of hard work.”

The long wait is ironic, given that most things happened “too early” for her. “I got the Arjuna Award when I was very young. I got married very early, at 23. I gave birth to my first child when I was 26. My first ‘retirement’ came early…” Siwach, 47, says.

The “first retirement” came in 2004, the year when Siwach and her husband had that disagreement over her idea to coach women players in Haryana. Kuldeep, Siwach admits, had a point. Sonepat at the time only had men’s hockey and a few from the region had gone on to play internationally.

Her feistiness, a trait that made her one of the best players of her generation, prevailed. But Kuldeep insisted that she get a coaching diploma from the National Institute of Sport, Patiala. “I didn’t see the need for it. I thought I had enough knowledge having played for so many years. But my husband said it would be beneficial in the long term, and he was right. Education is crucial for both players and coaches,” she says.

A year later, Siwach made a comeback into the national team but the work at her academy continued. Along with some of her trainees, she raised funds to build changing rooms and toilets, requested people in the village to sponsor a water cooler, put up a fence around the ground with the help of local authorities and turned the area into “something that would pass off as a hockey ground”.

But it wasn’t smooth sailing always. On most days, the players themselves had to cut the grass to level the field. And on the rare occasion when a nearby sports school that had an artificial surface allowed them to train, Siwach says they would not provide basic facilities like drinking water “to deter them from coming again”.

Then, there was the bickering with the district administration. In 2006, the authorities tried to convert the ground into a public park. “For years, no one cared about the place and after we worked hard to set up something meaningful there, they wanted to convert it into a park. We fought a lot and asked them, ‘where would the girls play if this ground was snatched away from them?’ Ultimately, they relented,” she says.

Help, though, poured in from several quarters — family, former teammates and coaches. “I was away most of the time and my in-laws took care of both the kids. My husband helped with all the off-the-field things required for the academy and (former coach) M K Kaushik sir often dropped in to give advice,” Siwach says.She started to focus full-time on coaching after retiring as a player in 2008. Today, Siwach’s academy is a haven for underprivileged players from the region. Not just coaching, Siwach provides them with a playing kit, nutrition and in some cases, even shelter as she continues to churn out player after player, who are summoned to the state team and national camps.

In fact, in the run-up to Tokyo, Neha Goyal had told The Indian Express: “As a kid, I had seen Pritam Siwach’s pictures in a newspaper and I went to the ground to watch her train others. One day, she asked me if I was interested in playing hockey… Pritam ma’am taught me how to play and also provided me with equipment along with other facilities. She has played a very important role in my career.”

Says Siwach: “It’s easier to play for the national team, and become an Arjuna Awardee but it is tough to develop players and work on the grassroots. If I did not have the support of my family, I would have been doing some government job after retiring as a player and cattle would still be grazing on that field.”

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