World Cup-winning defender Michael Kindo, one of the first Adivasi players to play for the Indian hockey team in 1970s and who had an immense impact on the sport’s growth in the tribal belt, passed away in Rourkela on Thursday.
He was 73. Kindo, who played in three World Cups (1971, 1973 and 1975), 1972 Munich Olympics and 1974 Tehran Asian Games, was suffering from age-related illness.
In the 1975 World Cup winning team of legends with flashy skills, Kindo was an understated champion who played a ‘towering role in his typical understated manner’, the squad’s captain Ajit Pal Singh said. “He wasn’t flashy and might not have the aura of a great player but he was great in every sense of the word,” Ajit Pal said of the lynchpin of India’s only global WC triumph.
The greatness, the former centre-half added, lay in the simplicity and effectiveness of his game. In an era of great forwards, Kindo carved out a reputation for himself with his tackling and dodging abilities. He was one of the pioneers in Indian hockey of what is nowadays called the no-look pass – spotting an unmarked teammate, to look elsewhere and pass the ball to him with pinpoint accuracy.
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“He wouldn’t do anything flashy on the field or get into any fights with the opposition players,” Ajit Pal said. “Yet, with his precise tackling and calm-headedness, he got us out of trouble on so many occasions.”
These traits – precise tackling and calm-headedness – would go on to personify players from the tribal belt in Jharkhand and Odisha, where Kindo – the first Adivasi player to get the Arjuna Award – sparked a revolution of sorts.
Kindo wasn’t the first Adivasi player to play for India; that was Jaipal Singh Munda, the Oxonian who captained the Indian hockey team at the 1928 Olympics. For more than 40 years after that, not one player from the region could make it that far. “Jaipal Singh studied at the Oxford University and learnt the game there, so the path became relatively easier for him,” Ajit Pal said. It took years for that achievement to have any impact at a local level in Odisha and Jharkhand, where hockey remained a popular sport in the tribal belts. Kindo started playing the sport in his school in a village in Jharkhand but his career took a serious turn only when he joined the Navy. “Back then, the Services had one of the best teams and boasted of many national team players. So when Michael got selected for the Services team, it was only natural that he would go on to play for India,” Ajit Pal said.
He made his international debut during a test series against Kenya in 1969, ending the 41-year wait for a player from the tribal belt to represent India. Once he opened the doors, there has been no stopping. Today, the region is regarded as the conveyor belt of players.
“It has remained a mystery to us why it took such a long time for an Adivasi player to represent India after Jaipal Singh,” former India captain Dilip Tirkey said. “But Michael inspired a whole generation of players.”
It was at Kindo’s house, Tirkey, a three-time Olympian starting 1996, said, that many players from his generation saw a proper hockey stick – for a generation that started playing hockey using makeshift sticks fashioned out of bamboo, that itself was a sight to behold.
“It’s tough to explain how it impacts you as a child. It was surreal for us to have an international player from our region, which wasn’t really known for anything,” Tirkey said. “There, you got to see a real hockey stick that an international player used. And to top that, there was a World Cup medal – an actual World Cup medal.”
In the 1975 World Cup, Ajit Pal said Kindo was one of the players he ‘depended on the most’. “We were an attacking side and a lot of us could do that fearlessly because we knew there were players like Michael defending our goal,” Ajit Pal said.
Kindo got substituted with Aslam Sher Khan in the semifinal of the 1975 World Cup against Malaysia after picking up an ankle injury. Khan’s heroics late in that match, which dragged India into the final, meant Kindo lost his spot in the starting 11 of the gold medal match against Pakistan.
But the ankle injury shortened his international career, which ended soon after the World Cup. His association with hockey did not end, though. Tirkey said his first big break came after Kindo, as the state team selector, picked him for the Odisha side for the 1993 National Championship in Bikaner. Kindo also coached at an academy in Rourkela, where he played a role in getting an artificial turf installed. “He even held a tournament for children at his village in Jharkhand. Michael never really left hockey, even though he stopped playing decades ago,” Tirkey said.
“Jaipal Singh was the flag-bearer of tribal hockey but it was Michael instilled the aspiration and belief in us. There was a time when a player from Rourkela and other tribal areas could not dream of playing outside the state, let alone the country. In 2023, the world will be coming to Rourkela (for the World Cup). And for that, Michael is responsible.”