Over the years, the tiny state of Manipur has shown the way to the rest of India in the field of sports. It has produced great champions in sports such as boxing, weightlifting, martial arts, etc. Now, it is also playing a big part in taking Indian hockey team to greater heights of success.
While Chinglensana Singh has emerged as a very important playmaker in the mid-field, Kothajit Singh Khadangban is an important player in the defence unit. In an exclusive conversation with Akshay Saraswat of International Business Times, India, the 26-year old narrated his own story as well as the reasons that make his home state such a fertile ground for sportspersons.
You come from Manipur which is a powerhouse of sports in India. But it hasn't traditionally been very strong in Hockey. But now you and Chinglensana Singh have become important members of the Indian team. Is the culture of hockey becoming more popular in the state?
Kothajit: Compared to before, hockey has become more popular in the state. More people are playing the game now. We now have Neelakanta Sharma, Chinglensana Singh and myself from Manipur in the team. So yes, hockey is more popular.
But more needs to be done still. For instance, more tournaments should take place, more high-profile domestic tournaments should be held in the state. These would lead to even more players emerging from there.
Traditionally, Punjab has been a great producer of forwards while Orissa has seen the emergence of many defenders from there. What about Manipur? What kind of players does your state specialize in?
Kothajit: It's hard for me to say what kind of players are coming through. But I used to play as a forward earlier, Chinglensana was also a forward. In fact, most of the players that are coming through used to play as attackers before being shifted to the mid-field.
The coach decides which position is best for the players. Our coach assessed the positions in which we fit in most comfortably – forward, at half-line or in defence. We then play in those positions for the national side.
Do you remember the time when you decided that hockey is the sport you wanted to play?
Kothajit: I used to play both hockey and football from an early age. In the area of Manipur where I live, hockey is more popular than football. So, I used to play football in the off-season and hockey during the time of the tournaments.
Also, because of my brother's involvement in the game, we had a lot of hockey stuff in our house. So, I focussed on hockey and slowly, reached the national level. So, yes, since my childhood, hockey is the sport that I have been devoted to.
So, how you got into professional hockey and became a successful player?
Kothajit: My training started in Air India Academy of Manipur at the National Stadium. My elder brother was also there for 3-4 years. He asked me to enter into the trials that were taking place. But, unfortunately, the academy got closed down. For the next three years, I kept practising on my own and did double the hard work required.
So, what did you do then to make further progress in your career?
Kothajit: At my home, I had drawn up my own schedule for training. After my brother had asked me to go through the trials, I spent the next three years practicing in the hope that the trials would eventually take place after the academy reopens. But when it didn't, I moved to the SAI academy in Lucknow where friends of me and my brother were training as well. In 2009, I joined the academy in Lucknow after going through the trials and getting selected. Then, steadily, I progressed and got picked by Indian Oil and eventually got a job with them as well.
How difficult was it for you and your brothers to manage everything with more than one player in the family?
Kothajit: We are four brothers and I am the youngest. All of us play hockey. Two of my brothers are in the army while one is with ONGC. I am with Indian Oil. They would regularly tell me how to improve my game. So, it wasn't difficult since I used to see their hard work and tried to emulate them.
What you said about hockey being more popular in your area is interesting since football is regarded as th more popular sport in Manipur.
Kothajit: It's not as if we don't play football. In the off-season, we play a lot of football. But our club is primarily a hockey club. So, it produces more hockey players than football players. That's why I chose hockey. If it wasn't hockey, I too would have become a football player.
I also chose hockey because my brothers were hockey players and they used to guide me as to how to get better. Hence, this game became easier for me.
Why is Manipur such a powerhouse in the field of sports? Despite being a small state with a small population, it produces so many top sportspersons. Why is that?
Kothajit: Because in every home, there are sportspersons. As a result, there is a sports-friendly environment in every house. Remaining fit is a passion with people. Also, we have good weather for sports there, a bit like Bengaluru, not too hot. So, a sports-friendly atmosphere has always been there and we grow up with it. That's why so many good players are coming through from the state. If every house is going to produce sportspersons, there are bound to be some who are really good.
What is the current state of sports infrastructure in Manipur? Do you think there is room for further improvement?
Kothajit: Things have certainly improved compared to earlier times. But there is scope for even more work to be done. That is needed.
What specific improvements would you like to see in the infrastructure for sports in your home state?
Kothajit: Recently, when I had 13-14 days of leave, I had gone back to my home. I heard the news that floodlights are going to be installed at hockey and football stadiums. Though the announcement had been made earlier, the newspapers are reporting that they will be installed in coming months. Apart from that, we also need some other facilities like changing rooms, etc.
We now have a sports minister who is from North-East? Do you think this would lead to better facilities in your state and even some international hockey matches being played there?
Kothajit: That's what I hope for, that the minister brings even more improvement, in all sports. Hopefully, he would usher greater development of sports in the North-East.
There is another very important player in the Indian team from your state – midfielder Chinglensana Singh. When both of you are in the side, is there a special chemistry and understanding between you two?
Kothajit: Yes, since we have been playing together for a long time, there is good understanding. When I go into attack, he takes my position. So yes, because of having played together for a long time, we have a good understanding.
Before you, there were only three hockey players from Manipur that have represented India in the Olympics. Now you have also reached great heights of success. Do you receive recognition from people of your state when you go there?
Kothajit: Yes, people do recognise us. Having played for the national team, players like me and Chinglensana are known. People in Manipur do follow sports. Football is also passionately followed and is watched on TV a lot.
Your team plays a very aggressive brand of hockey and are constantly looking to attack the opposition. But it seems that, in face of a counter attack, the team becomes slightly vulnerable in defence. Since you are a key defender, is your main focus on stopping counter-attacks?
Kothajit: Since we are playing a very attacking style of hockey, counter- control is essential. If we are constantly launching attacks after attacks, we will also get attacked at times from the other team. So, counter-control is necessary.
Also, we can't always be in an attacking mode because the other team has also come to play. So, we have to assess the situation and decide when we need to attack and when to slow down the game. This too is important and that's what we are working on.
Personally, what kind of role do you like to play? Going into the other half to join the attack or staying back in defence?
Kothajit: Earlier, I used to focus more on defending because our team was considered a bit weak in that aspect. So, in my mind, I wanted to work more on defence for my team and saving goals. But that time is gone. Now, we have to focus on both attacking and defending and play aggressively. I have to be sometimes high up the pitch and sometimes back in our own half.
But what is the role that the team management expects you to play?
Kothajit: So, it is the duty of the entire defence unit to provide good counter-control. The four players at the back have to stay ready for counter-control. Right from the time of the World Cup, we have been practising a lot for playing attacking hockey. We mounted a lot of attacks in our matches. So, it's pretty good, our aggressive style. We are constantly moving from one end of the pitch to the other.
Now that your team is moving towards the Olympics, what are the improvements that you think need to be brought into the side to succeed in that event?
Kothajit: The most important is finishing inside the 'D' and earning penalty corners or goals. Because if we don't earn a PC or get a goal after entering the 'D,' there would be no gain. So, the main thing is working on our finishing. Then there is defence. No matter whether we are winning or losing, our defence should be kept strong till the end. We are working on that and it is very important for the team.