Nilakanta Sharma first picked up a stick in the hope of representing India. Hailing from Manipur, the north east region of India, he has now been able to build a new home for his family. Further, the storylines from Tokyo 2020 has given new impetus that more hockey players could emerge from the region and continue to trump football.
Sharma who has been a regular feature in the Hockey India national programme since his junior days in 2014. He was part of the India team that lifted the Sultan of Johor Cup, beating Great Britain in the final. The midfielder was crowned a junior world champion with India two years later and made his senior debut in 2017.
He is now regarded as a “trusted lieutenant” for skipper Manpreet Singh. “I have been quite fortunate in my career so far and I will continue to work hard, and execute my role in the team as expected of me,” says Sharma. “Most of us in the team believe the Olympic medal was just the beginning. We have set certain targets in this Olympic cycle and we are focused on achieving those targets.
He was the only Manipuri hockey player in the squad that won the historic Olympic bronze in Tokyo last year. “I am from a humble family background,” he adds. “My father made a living as a priest in the temple near my home. I picked up the hockey stick with a hope to represent India.
“I looked up to players like Chinglensana Singh and Kothajit Singh who were also from my state. I knew doing well will not only bring great recognition but would also help me improve the living conditions of my family.
“Looking back, the struggles have really paid off and today I have built a new house for my parents in Imphal. My parents encouraged me every step of the way and I am happy through hockey I have been able to give them a better life.
“The respect and love we have received from the people of Manipur after the Olympic success has truly been overwhelming. In Manipur, football is most popular but now after our Olympic success many youngsters in that region believe they can make a career out of hockey.”
Nilakanta says the target this year is to win gold at the Asian Games in China (over the Commonwealth Games) and be best prepared for the FIH Men’s World Cup 2023 at home in January.
“Definitely the biggest tournament for us this year is the Asian Games and we have set our target of securing Olympic qualification,” he states. “At the Asian Champions Trophy, we got to see how other teams from the continent are performing and definitely we can’t take anyone lightly.
“A good outing this year in all major tournaments will help us for the Men’s World Cup next year in Bhubaneswar and Rourkela. It will obviously be a dream come true moment if we can finish on the podium.”
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