With India all set to host United States of America in the women's hockey Olympic qualifiers, the focus would be on the team's key players in all three departments - attack, defence and midfield. One of the key players would be Jharkhand's Nikki Pradhan, a brilliant midfielder.
Hailing from the state of Jharkhand that possesses a rich culture of hockey, Nikki's journey reveals why India is lagging behind other nations in hockey despite having abundance of talent. It was only her grit and tenacity that saw her through tough times and lack of proper support.
In this exclusive interaction with International Business Times, India, the 25-year old midfielder talks about Jharkhand's culture of hockey, the great hurdles she faced on her way to the Indian team and the preparations for the upcoming Olympic qualifiers.
How excited are you about the upcoming Olympic qualifiers and are you confident about performing well in them?
Yes, because we have worked a lot here in recent days and the team is also working well.
Jharkhand has, over the years, produced some great defenders. But you are a midfielder. How did that happen?
Players from Jharkhand and Odisha, from tribal communities, are usually a bit strong and therefore, good at defence. And many players must have also followed the example of those who came earlier and decided to become defenders.
So, how did you become a midfielder?
I used to play as a striker. But as a striker, my skills weren't up to the mark and I was not being very successful. So, I started playing as a midfielder and did well in that position. Hence, from then on, I became a midfielder.
Jharkhand has a great history of hockey. What about the current state of infrastructure and the hockey system in that state? Is the local talent being promoted well enough?
A new institute has opened in Jharkhand recently which has 33 boys and 33 girls. This is very beneficial. Earlier, once a player was out of the hostels that existed, he or she didn't have any decent place to live. But now, with this new institute coming into existence, those who leave the hostel, get another chance and a place to live.
Tell us about yourself. At what age did you get introduced to hockey and at what age did you start playing the game?
When I was studying in school, my cousin Pushpa Pradhan, who is also an international player, and my elder sister Shashi Pradhan, a national player herself, were also there. After seeing them, I thought I could also play this game.
In school, I had a teacher who had great belief in me. He said that if my footwork is good, I should be made to play hockey. He coached me a lot at that time. Then, I followed my elder sisters' path and got into the training hostel.
How old were you when you first played the game?
So, before that, you didn't play hockey?
When I was in the eighth standard, I started playing hockey in school. Then, in 2006, I came to Government Girls High School in Bariatu. There, I joined the National Sports Training Centre (NSTC) of SAI. In 2008, I was removed from there.
We had two hostels there, one of them belonging to the government. When the government hostel asked me to leave, the people of the other one said that since I play well, I should be shifted to their place.
Then, in 2010, I passed 10+2. After one passes the 10+2 level, they are not allowed to stay in that hostel also. So, I was removed from that place too. At that time, I was greatly helped by my coaches and my school principal. They procured a room for me at a hostel. I used to live there alone and so, had to do the cooking in the room myself.
In 2011, when we had the national games in Ranchi, I got selected for them. Eventually, I got selected for the Indian junior camp also. That camp was in Bhopal and my seniors from Jharkhand were also there. They, then, talked to the authorities about me and told them that I am a good player but am not living in the hostel.
So, then, I joined Bhopal Excellency and started playing for that institution. After that, in 2012, I joined Ranchi South Eastern Railway and returned to Ranchi. Now I am living there.
When you were in school, did you have your own hockey stick or did the school provide it?
I did not have my own stick and played with what the school gave to us.
So, when did you get your own stick and shoes?
When I joined the SAI hostel in 2006, kits used to be provided there. I didn't have my own so whatever we got from the hostel, I used it to play.
What do you think would be the biggest challenge when you play USA in Olympic qualifiers?
USA uses a lot of body play. We have an advantage that we played Great Britain before playing USA as they have similar styles. By playing Great Britain, we could figure out where we are as a team.
You would be playing in front of the home crowd after a long time when you take part in the qualifiers. Is crowd support an advantage or something that puts extra pressure on you?
Yes, it's a benefit but we won't pay too much attention to the fact that it's our home ground and so many people are supporting us. We will focus on the work that we have done.
You are the sixth player from Jharkhand to play for India in the Olympics. Your state must be having a lot of talent, so what can be done to promote it?
There is a lot of talent in Jharkhand. Also, in the state, even today, little kids play hockey with each other. But, as I said earlier, after a certain age, players were removed from the hostels. Then that player wouldn't get another chance.
When somebody becomes a player, it takes 3-4 years for him to learn all the basics of the sport. Just when he is getting good with the basics and his interest in the sport is becoming strong, they are removed from the hostel. At that time, the player faces a lot of problems. But now, because of this new hostel becoming functional, perhaps, there would be an improvement.
So, you believe that there is a need for financial assistance and also facilities?
Yes, both are needed.
So, do you think that presently, enough is being done? Or, is there a need for even more?
There aren't as many facilities currently as there should be. But, compared to earlier, it's much better. Currently, there are two players in the senior team from Jharkhand and some in the junior team also. By looking at them, others are getting inspired and want to emulate them. This is also leading to improvements. So, yes, things are getting better with hockey in Jharkhand.