Midfielder Nilakanta Sharma, who won the Junior World Cup title in 2016, is now eager to perform for the Indian men’s team and take them to the Tokyo Olympics. In an exclusive interview with SportsCafe, Nilakanta has described his journey from a small village in Manipur to the Indian hockey team.
The Indian hockey team has now seen some good players coming from the North-Eastern states of the country and most of them are from Manipur. After Kothajit Singh and Chinglensana Singh, it is the turn for another Manipuri lad – Nilakanta Sharma – to impress with his style of play.
Coming from a small village in the East Imphal district, Nilakanta has come a long way in hockey. He won the Junior World Cup title in Lucknow back in 2016 and has also had a smooth transition into the senior side. The move from Manipur to the Hockey Academy in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh helped him a lot in shaping up his career.
With interest in hockey from his childhood, the midfielder had joined a local club in Manipur’s capital city. “I started playing in Imphal and at that time hockey was very famous in my village so I started paying after watching my brothers play and got into a local club,” Nilakanta said in an exclusive interview with SportsCafe.
After the success with the junior Indian side, he was given a chance in the senior team and made his debut in a tour to Europe the very next year. He played against Belgium and the Netherlands and according to him, the experience of playing with many senior players in that foreign tour helped him a lot to improve his hockey skills.
“The first tour I went for with the senior team was in 2017 to Holland and Belgium as by then I didn’t have much experience so I got to learn a lot and after that, I wasn’t selected in the team.
“With Sardar (Singh) Bhai, he used to be excellent with the ball like his way of passing the ball and where to play. There is a lot to learn from him and I did that as well. He is a very good leader on the turf and I was lucky enough to play with him,” the midfielder added.
“It was a big inspiration for me, I never thought that I would be playing with him and he told me so many things and it became a motivation for me that will stay with me forever. Same with Chinglensana Singh and Kothajit Singh who used to talk to me a lot of keeping me motivated.”
However, he had been in and out of the team until the Hockey World Cup 2018. Although he did a decent job in 2017, Nilakanta missed the flights to Gold Coast and Jakarta last year for the prestigious Commonwealth Games and Asian Games. Now Nilakanta, a permanent of the senior team, is of the opinion that staying out of the team helps the players to understand their mistakes and work according to that.
Nilakanta said, “We also get to learn a lot once we are out of the team. When I see a junior player playing in place of me, I try to improve and rectify my mistakes. I also talk to the coach regarding that. One needs to ensure a lot of other aspects when one is out of the team. We need to maintain the same while you are not in the team. We need to keep on fighting to maintain our place in the team. ”
With the Indian team getting ready to play the FIH Olympics Qualifier games against Russia this week, Nilakanta is expected to play an important role in the midfield. The midfield of the Indian team also has the services of the skipper himself and Nilakanta also explained his relationship with the skipper both on and off the field.
“My communication with Manpreet is really good. He keeps motivating others and he doesn’t argue with others but tries to involve everyone in the game. Hardik is a youngster and he has been playing well and we support each other and the communication between us about who goes in front and who comes back has also been going well. This communication has been going well since 3-4 tournaments now,” explained the 24-year-old from Manipur.
When asked about the impact of Australian coach Graham Reid ever since he took the charge of the team in April earlier this year, the midfielder replied, “In the first meeting that he organised he said that he is going to need hard work in practice as well as in the match. Whenever he is on the field working with us, it is clearly visible that he works hard too with us and so by seeing the coach we are even more motivated to work hard during practice.”
“His coaching style is really simple like when he talks about passing whenever it is required and not holding the ball for too long so he has a simple style and it is really useful for us as in the past three-four tournaments we are doing as we have been told by the coach. It is a big advantage for us as when he explains he doesn’t take long, he focuses on one or two things.”
With more than two years in the senior Indian team, Nilkanta has a fair bit of idea of the top levels of the sport. He doesn’t have huge aspirations though and wants to ensure that he takes one tournament at a time and prepares for that. The next target for the Manipuri youngster is to give his best in the two FIH Olympic Qualifier games against Russia. However, before signing off the chat, he also went on to add some points regarding the benefits of playing FIH Pro League ahead of the Tokyo Olympics.
“About the future, I would just like to say that whenever I am on the ground, I try to give my 100% like the Olympic Qualifiers is just ahead of me and after qualifying, we can think of a next step and I like to go step by step so the immediate goal in front of me Olympic Qualifiers and then I am going to think about the next step.
“After qualifying for the Olympics, our focus is going to be the Olympic Games in 2020. It is good for us that we are going to play in the Pro League as the teams playing there will be there in the Olympics. So we can focus on that and if we play them twice it's going to be easy for us. The whole team needs to work harder and be honest for the future aspirations,” Nilakanta mentioned.
After Kothajit and Chinglensana, Nilkanta’s rise on the international hockey circuit shows that football is not the only sport that is popular in Manipur and hockey is also spreading to the far corners of the nation. The rise of the stars in North-Eastern states will help in popularizing the sport in that part of India and eventually, help Indian hockey to go further ahead.