Hockey World Cup: India’s Nilakanta Sharma – Unglamorous, uncomplicated, but a demolition man


For a quarter of an hour during India’s training session on a warm Bhubaneswar afternoon, Nilakanta Sharma pirouettes inside the 23m of the midfield in the opponent’s half: receives the ball from the centre or the flanks, turns, takes a couple of steps forward and, with a snap of the wrists, feeds the forwards in the attacking third. Nothing sexy, nothing fancy. Just simple, effective two-touch play; his brain running faster than his legs.

“That’s why he goes unnoticed on the pitch,” says former India coach Harendra Singh. “But the number of opponents he has demolished…” Two come to mind right away.

In 2016, Sharma collected a ball near the 23m line and sliced open the Belgian defence in the final of the Junior World Cup with a beautifully weighted pass that found Simranjeet Singh on top of the ‘D’. Simranjeet took it on the reverse and scored the goal that sealed the title for India.

It doesn’t take a lot to get Sharma going about the second instance when he ‘demolished an opponent’, which is surprising given he is shy to a fault. But mention Tokyo, the bronze medal playoff against Germany and ‘that’ pass, and the 27-year-old from Manipur can’t stop talking.

“Coach (Graham Reid) always tells me during individual meetings, ‘Kanta, I can never forget that ball you played’,” Sharma smiles. “I told Simran I’ll play the ball to him on the counter. I got the ball and Amit (Rohidas) was sprinting forward; he had made an overlapping run on the right. And from the bench, the coach was yelling at me, urging me to play the ball to him.”

The coach’s voice reverberated in an empty stadium but Sharma – even before receiving the pass – had seen Simranjeet running into the box, unmarked. And so, he played a defence-splitting pass from near the 23m line and Simranjeet, with a simple flick of the wrist, scored the goal that ensured India’s return to the Olympic podium.

“Coach was glad I believed in myself and played the ball to Simran. Goal ho gaya, achi baat hai,” he says, and goes back into his shell.

Simranjeet may have fallen out of favour since then – with no explanation coming forth from the team management – and Sharma, the man with two of the most crucial assists in the recent history of Indian hockey to his name, continues to thrive.

Along with Hardik Singh, Sharma has been among the best outfield players in India’s opening two matches of the World Cup, against Spain and England. Now, with Hardik injured and his availability unlikely for the final Pool D match against Wales on Thursday, a must-win for their hopes to top Pool D and qualify directly for the quarterfinals, Sharma’s role as an attacking midfielder will assume even more importance.

He hasn’t done anything eye-catching yet, but that’s where the beauty lies – Sharma rarely ever does. He is quick on his feet, runs into spaces, pre-scans the field, receives a pass and plays it forward. He’ll go on and on, without tiring, without missing a beat. In a team of artists, Sharma provides a touch of class.

“If I am being honest, my effort is to get a smooth first touch. If I get a nice feel of the ball first up, I am sorted for the rest of the game,” Sharma says. “It sounds very simple but is very difficult because when you receive the ball, you are under pressure from all three sides as the opponents want to snatch possession. Sometimes, your brain freezes in those moments. So, you need to have a good touch. All day, I think about it, learning from my past mistakes and trying to improve.”


It’s quite literally the only thing he does. “When I wake up, I think of everything that I want to do on the field. When I am on the field, I of course can’t think about anything else. And when I return to my room, I am either watching my old videos to see if I did anything wrong or other hockey videos,” he says. Too intense? “How else will I improve?” he retorts.

He’s already transformed himself into a totally different player from what he once was, Harendra, the coach of India’s 2016 Junior World Cup-winning team, says. As a junior, like most other Indian players, Sharma loved to dribble. At times, especially in the midfield, it was seen as unnecessary showboating by the coaches. “Out of all players, I was particularly very hard on (midfielder) Sumit and Nilakanta,” Harendra, who is now the coach of Team USA, says.

Harendra’s tough love, Sharma says, helped him change his style completely. “From dribbling, I turned into a touch player. Pehle ghoom ghoom k bohot khelta tha (I used to dodge and dribble a lot earlier). But Harendra sir said, take a touch and pass the ball forward. Now, I have forgotten that style of play. In modern hockey, especially in midfield, there’s no time to dodge players.”

And so, Sharma runs into spaces, pre-scans the field, receives the ball and passes it forward. “His biggest strength,” Harendra says, “is that he keeps the ball rolling, glued to his stick.”

That, Harendra says, is an advantage because unlike dodging, when the opponents can steal the ball when you dribble it from one side to another, it’s tough to steal when the ball is rolled forward because if the opponent tries to tackle, it’ll most likely lead to a foul for a stick-check. “Add to that his peripheral vision, where he can see things around him up to 30-40 degrees.”

It makes Sharma one of India’s most potent players in the attacking third. A low-on-risk, high-on-efficiency touch player, who can demolish opponents with his uncomplicated, unglamorous style of play.

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