Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Hockey World Cup diary: India, nation of foodies, broken phones and hotel intricacies

The Hockey Paper editor takes a sideline view of life on tour at the men’s 2023 World Cup in Rourkela and Bhubaneswar

It started with a green pickle. Having landed in Jharsuguda, a two-hour drive from Rourkela in mid January, a small cohort of young and old hacks were left to ponder our next move in getting to the World Cup’s second city. There are many unexpected turns in Indian daily life, which is what makes this country such a vibrant place to tour. Thus we happened upon an unexpected media bus and we were gleefully on our way.

Home made naan and a delectable green pickle was soon being passed around by Times of India man Jaspreet Sahni. Over three weeks, food has been an ever-present. Lo behold if I miss a high tea or dinner. Why? What’s wrong with you? A nation obsessed with food is no understatement. 

The food has been wondrous. I’ve indulged in the best buttered naan (hat tip Rourkela’s Regency Hotel restaurant), even if the head waiter bizarrely wanted me to pay separately to my other eight Indian colleagues one night.

In Rourkela, we would usually take an evening stroll a few minutes down a road buzzing with activity during the day. Late at night, we first happened upon a streetside tea vendor, run by an elderly husband and wife. The 10-minute wait was worth every second for our nightly cups of Odisha lal chai, a red lemon tea with masala flakes.

The nightly offering to the World Cup press pack

Without doubt the best press/media food I’ve experienced in sport has occurred in India, both in 2018 and 2023; a smorgasbord nightly offering – a record 20 curries in a row – of fish and on the bone chicken curries, paneer jalfrezis, grilled vegetables, lapped up with naan, several rice options, murgh and devine daal. The mix of spice and savoury. Unforgettable.

Maestro saves the day

Never become the story is the journalist mantra. We don’t ask for sympathy, but sometimes it’s taken out of your hands. Not least with some serious tech issues which fell, literally, my way and left Indian press colleagues in stitches at my misfortune. 

After two broken mobile phone screens in less than a week, the tour gods were not on my side. But what this bizarre series of events did underline was the sheer friendliness from colleagues going out of their way to help. It even spawned a diary item in the Times of India. 

My tech troubles also seemed to make its way across Delhi newsrooms asking if I was regularly prone to these phone problems.

Meanwhile, I did one print interview with a paper in Bhubaneswar perhaps on the back of the diary item. We have yet to decipher it, as it is the local dialect, but one hopes they didn’t misquote me on Jaspreet’s pickle!

I’ve heard my share of burps and farts, too – I was even burped in the face in Rourkela, although the culprit was perhaps unaware – while a few of us got in a near pickle the other day at the Kalinga Stadium when doing a video interview. One passer-by had nonchalantly farted, while we just about held it together until the end of one answer.

Bhubaneswar bites

In 2018, I took a chance on one Bhubaneswar hotel due to its Insta-looking top floor pool, only to witness pigeons using it for all sorts of activity. The media hotel it was for 2023. In Rourkela, the Regency Inn was our chosen destination and three of us took great delight in checking each other’s rooms given we had standard, deluxe and executive. I had booked the latter and there was much amusement that I had no table or chair, just a small lobby area and sofa. No rest for this correspondent though.

The Hockey Paper’s daily media round-up of India’s fervent print newspaper scene

Also nesting outside my window was a lone pigeon. I took the brunt of dawn noises, guilty about asking reception to deal with the small issue after someone expressed their love of all birds. In the morning, the New Indian Express was usually taken from reception. Asking behind the desk where the nearest place to buy one from usually came with ‘very far away’. It took me a couple of days to realise that a newstand just a short walk away had the three English-language papers on sale.

On to Bhubaneswar and after a day’s reporting (surely this has been the best World Cup for consistently thrilling matches) it is evident that locals tend to hit the sack early. Hotel bars close at 10:30 or 11pm sharp, while the lights have gone out several times at the Press Club of Odisha. But not before we sampled some excellent chick pea roast (chana masala) and egg devil egg chop with potato masala.

Meanwhile at our city hotel base, one Dutch colleague has been woken up at 7:30am with ‘bed tea’, a traditional cup of milky brew taken by many on waking, despite not ticking the box on arrival, while another went to pick up his rucksack from his room, only then to think it had been stolen. He realised he had got off on the wrong floor and his room key card could gain entry to the room immediately above him.

Last word: A stadium to savour

An interview I conducted with a ministry official in Bhubaneswar suggested that Rourkela will definitely have a legacy after the World Cup leaves town.

For India’s opening games, especially the ‘thrilling’ 0-0 between England and India, it will remain one of the best spectacles I’ve seen in any sport, regardless of size or atmosphere of other stadia. The wraparound, amphitheatre-like set up, coupled with 21,800 fans, was a sight to behold.

Total Hockey

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