Chikte, Karkera have big boots to fill

With P. R. Sreejesh yet to recover from his anterior cruciate ligament injury, Akash Chikte and Suraj Karkera, who shared duties at last month's Asia Cup in Dhaka, will find themselves firmly in the spotlight at next month's Hockey World League in Bhubaneswar.

Suraj Karkera (left) and Akash Chikte are good friends as both are in the same department in the Army (both JCOs in the Bombay Engineer Group).

Akash Chikte and Suraj Karkera may be in competition for the first-choice goalkeeper's spot at next month's Hockey World League Final but there is, they insist, no rivalry between them.

Ever since P. R. Sreejesh tore his anterior cruciate ligament at the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup in April, India has been forced to look at alternatives. Chikte and Karkera shared duties at last month's Asia Cup in Dhaka; they now find themselves firmly in the spotlight against the world's best in Bhubaneswar.

"Sometimes I start; sometimes he starts," says Chikte. "We never feel, 'I'm not playing and he's playing.' We are focused on the job. Suraj and I are in the same department in the Army (both JCOs in the Bombay Engineer Group). So we stay together all the time. We are good friends."

Chikte made his debut for the senior team at the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup last year, where India finished with a silver medal. When he returned home to Lohara village in Maharashtra's Yavatmal district, a grand reception awaited him. "My relatives and friends took out a rally to bring me home from Yavatmal town," he recalls. "They hired a truck. I never imagined I would get such a welcome."

The 25-year-old admits, though, that he was rough around the edges when he was first called up to the senior national camp in 2015. "My basics were zero because I had never played for the Junior Indian team. I was good only at penalty corners and in 1v1 situations. Then Sreejesh bhai told me where I was going wrong and helped me improve," he says.

Chikte's father runs a welding workshop back home and the son is not averse to working there himself whenever he goes home. "I've been doing it since childhood, so I know everything," he smiles. "I help my father out when I go home. It feels good."

Karkera, in contrast, came through the Junior ranks. He was part of the core group ahead of the Junior World Cup last year, although he missed the tournament itself. Four months later, he was named in the Indian team for the 2017 Sultan Azlan Shah Cup but an ankle injury ruled him out of the trip. It wasn't until August this year that he finally made his senior debut, on India's tour of Belgium and the Netherlands.

Growing up in Mumbai's Malad area, where his father worked in a jewellery store and his mother in a beauty parlour, Karkera idolized Adrian D'Souza and Yuvraj Walmiki. “I used to play football first; so my PE master felt I would have quick feet and tried me as a 'keeper in a hockey match,” he says.

Sreejesh's scheduled return next year will relegate his deputies to the bench again. But that thought does not concern Karkera. “It’s very difficult to fill Sreejesh's big boots; he’s one of the best keepers in the world,” the 22-year-old says. “Sreejesh is there for us whenever we need him.”