We are a cricket crazy nation, even though our obsession with cricket has a relative recent origin. When it comes to sport, our original passion has been Hockey. But somewhere along the decades this national sport of ours was left far behind.

But Ghumenhera, a village on the outskirts of Delhi, is still as hockey crazy as it gets. The recent laying of an artificial hockey turf in the village is a just reward for the villagers for their 25-years long and sustained passion for hockey.

Way back in 1998, I happened to be watching a game of hockey being played between Delhi State Women Hockey team and another team from Madhya Pradesh at Delhi’s National Stadium. The attendance for the match was sparse but for a group of around 100 people sitting together. They were a vociferous bunch of supporters. They were supporting the Delhi team.

Curious, post-match, I talked to one of the members of the group. He told me that they are all from a village called Ghumenhera, which is located 10 kilometres beyond Najafgarh on the outskirts of Delhi. The reason for their presence in the stadium was the fact that majority of the squad of Delhi State Women Hockey team were girls from their village. I was inspired to check this hockey crazy village.

I visited Ghumenhera Village soon after. A narrow strip of road, with thin vehicular traffic and even thinner mass transport facilities, led me to this dusty hamlet. Once there, I saw children of different age groups sweating it out on a dusty hockey field, and a community sticking to hockey, despite the odds. The villagers talked enthusiastically about their hockey. I was even taken to visit the homes of the two girls who had a few days ago made it to the national squad.

My recent second visit to the village saw a welcome change. The road was a bit smoother and bus services were better. But the good part was that the passion for the game has continued unabated. And the best was the hockey playing field.

The children were practicing on an artificial playing field, which has been laid over the original field. For a hockey player, this is nothing less than revolutionary. Artificial turf in a village! It seemed too good to be true.

Baljeet Singh, the present coach in Ghumenhera and a former national level player to have come out of the Ghumenhera Hockey fields said, “It seems our years of hard work has finally paid off. When we started playing here things were tough. We had to go all the way to National Stadium to get a feel of the artificial grass. But now as we have this artificial turf in our village we will be able to produce many more international level hockey players.”

Artificial hockey turf is a rarity in India, and Delhi has only three more. Now this is only the fourth hockey field in Delhi, after the National Stadium, Shivaji stadium and DDA’s Yamuna Sports Complex.

Ghumenhera’s love affair with hockey started in 1992 when the village Government school got a Hindi teacher Naresh Kumar, known in the village as Naresh Guruji, who had played hockey in his hey days. He got the village kids, most of whom studied in the school, to take up hockey.

Interest picked up and soon the children and the village elders came together to level the school ground and convert it into a hockey playing field, though without any grass. Naresh Kumar was posted out in 1995 but the fire for the love of Hockey had been ignited. Soon this dusty field started producing hockey players with village kids, both boys and girls, being selected for the state and the national team as well. The hockey craze continues till today.

This belt of villages around Najafgarh on the outskirts of Delhi is known for producing stars in sports disciplines such as wrestling, athletics and cricket. All this happens despite lack of sporting facilities. But what the youngsters lack in sporting facilities is made up with talent and grit. The hockey legacy of Ghumenhera is a proof of that.

The best part is the way hockey has benefited the village girls. The love of the game and opportunity to get an economic foot hold inspired the village community, which largely carries a conservative mindset, to encourage the girls to take up the sport as well.

Harsha (15), from neighbouring Rauta Village who is an emerging young star said, “I grew up watching the girls elder to me playing hockey and travelling all over the country to play. My parents also saw all this. So, when I showed a desire to play hockey they readily agreed.”

Virender Sehwag, one of India’s cricketing greats also hails from Najafgarh. Ghumenhera’s fixation with hockey is so intense that not even the great cricketing success of local boy Virender Sehwag made them leave the hockey stick and pick up a cricket bat.

In 2011 the village community turned this dusty hockey field into a grassy green. Now a couple of months ago this very ground got an artificial playing turf at the cost of rupees 4.5 crores. Says Singh, “This was the recognition of the love of hockey that our village has shown in the last 25 years.”

Hockey has been instrumental in providing job outlets for the predominantly poor families living in the village. Because of hockey many youngsters in the village got jobs in the Indian Railways, Indian Navy and other PSUs. The children are all trained free of cost and even the equipment is provided free by the village community with active help from former hockey players from the village who are now employed.

The new turf was laid down by the Delhi Government with help from the local MLA who himself comes from Ghumenhera and played hockey here.

The village seniors, most of whom got jobs in Government agencies through their hockey, think that the new artificial playing turf is going to be a huge game changer for the quality of hockey coming out of the village in future. It has been a couple of months since the new turf, and already there has been a sudden increase in children taking up hockey. Now around 100 kids practice here daily.

Himanshu Phalswal (15) is one of the brightest talent here. Son of a village farmer, he has been playing hockey in Ghumenhera for the last four years. “Everybody in our village plays hockey. That is why I also took it up. My aim is to play for India,”he said. It is youngsters such as Himanshu who are going to benefit immensely from this new turf in the village.

“Till now our children had to travel all the way to National Stadium to play on an artificial hockey turf. It took more than two hours, two bus rides, a long metro ride and then some walking, to reach the stadium. That tired the players and costed money as well. Also as most kids come from poor families, something as basic as a good diet is a struggle. Many could not continue with hockey due to these reasons. As a result, the interest in the sport was waning a bit in the last few years. But with the new turf laid things are looking up again,” said Sushila Sharma, a former Indian International.

Sushila Sharma, Manju, Sonu and Raju are some of the former players from Ghumenhera who have represented India internationally. Today they all are employed with Indian Railways. These former players from Ghumenhera are part of the support structure of the present hockey in the village. They all pool in to get basic equipment, dress and even diet for the training children.

With the new turf, even children from neighbouring villages such as Rauta, Daryapur, Bardsa and Kanganheri are being trained here for hockey. Today the village team plays as a club called Ghumenhera Risers. Their next stop is Pune, where they are going to participate in the Nehru Cup of hockey.