Manipur’s Nilakanta Sharma making a mark in Indian hockey team

Coming from Manipur, where football trumps every other sport, midfielder Nilakanta Sharma is focused on becoming the main part of the Indian hockey team.

Nilakanta made his senior national debut in July 2017.   -  K. Pichumani

It's a surprise that Nilakanta Sharma, at 23, has already won 33 international caps in hockey. The former Junior World Cup-winning midfielder is not a product from the so-called hockey belts of the country, but hails from Manipur, where football trumps over every other sport.

“The facilities and infrastructure in Manipur are not that great. We sometimes had access to the ground from 6 am to 10 am in the morning, it was all football otherwise. The hockey players from the state had to venture out to make their dreams a reality,” he says.

The Indian core group of 25 players has three players from the north-east state – Nilakanta, Kothajit Singh and Chingalsana. Much like the two senior professionals, Nilakanta too left home at an early stage, moving to Bhopal when he was just 16.

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“I went to Bhopal to play an under-17 tournament where one of the coaches spotted asked me to enrol at the hockey academy (managed by Olympian M.K. Kaushik). From 2011 to 2013, I trained there. I struggled a lot while living in a hostel," he says.

Nilakanta's next stop was Mumbai when he started representing Western Railways in the Super Division League from 2014. He was picked up by Hockey India League (HIL) franchisee Dabang Mumbai the following season. Nilakanta made his senior national debut in July 2017, against Belgium during India’s Europe tour and also represented India A which participated in the Australia Hockey League, later, in the year.

But, the exit of Roelant Oltmans before the 2017 Asia Cup saw the midfielder's progress halted. “After the (Junior) World Cup win it was all great. Oltmans was our coach and we also played well under him at the senior level in Europe. Then, Sjoerd (Marijne) came. After getting habituated to playing according to Oltmans, adjusting to a new style of play was tough,” the 23-year old says.

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Nilakanta was named as a stand-by for the 2017 Hockey World League Final in Bhubaneswar and then, the Champions Trophy in the Netherlands and the Asian Games in 2018.

However, Railways coach, Davinder Singh, believes that Nilakanta will soon make it back to the senior national team.

“I have seen him play since 2013. He has the skills and the discipline to make it to the top. He was a stand-in for three tournaments, but that is going to change soon,” Davinder says.

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The Manipur lad is indebted to his two senior statemates and says: “They (Chingelsana, Kothajit) are very helpful. They might be frustrated when we commit mistakes, but after the match, they explain us patiently how we can improve.”

After helping his team finish second in the 92nd MCC-Murugappa Gold Cup, Nilakanta's focus is firmly on impressing coach Harendra Singh and book a berth in the national team for the upcoming Asian Champions Trophy in October and the World Cup in November.

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