Till that moment, nobody really knew Nilakanta Sharma was actually on the Mahindra Stadium pitch. There’s nothing essentially eye-catching about the 20-year-old’s style of play. He’s not often embroiled in gallant charge with the ball. Nor does he have the habit of taking on opposition defenders, teasing and taunting them with mesmerising stick-work. And then he’s not the most prolific of goalscorers. But in the 41st minute of the match between Dabang Mumbai and Ranchi Rays, Sharma made his presence felt.
A powerfully struck first-time shot from inside the Ranchi shooting circle gave Mumbai the lead at 5-4. Before that, Sharma had quietly and efficiently been going about his business – a feat that has won him the moniker ‘silent killer’ within his Western Railway domestic team.
His playing style is largely of the ‘by-the-book’ type. Instead of tricks and flicks, he looks to make a short, simple, yet effective pass. Nonetheless, he is a clever dribbler. A low centre-of-gravity helps him swivel with speed, and he uses the skill to make space for himself and give teammates time to open up to receive a pass. Defensively, his stamina helps him efficiently mark opposition strikers.
His domestic coach Jasdev Singh sums up Sharma’s play: “When he’s on the pitch, you don’t know he’s there. But when he’s not on the pitch, you can feel something is missing.”
It’s the same mentality that has kept him in the core group of the junior hockey India team, with whom he won the Sultan of Johar Cup in 2014, and came runner up in the 2015 edition.
The goal itself on the night gave the hosts the lead, and momentum to go further to win their first game of the season 7-5, that too after playing the entire second half one man down. Affan Yousuf was sent off with a straight red card just 20 seconds before the end of the first half for seemingly hitting Rays’ Barry Middleton. The franchise however, will contest the decision.
“I was talking to Barry at half time and he said there wasn’t any contact. So the team manager and Affan will meet the tournament director and they will go through the review process to check the details,” said Dabang Mumbai coach Jay Stacy.
On Thursday, Sardar Singh — who has been under scrutiny for allegations levelled against him by his ex-girlfriend — will be in action against UP Wizards at Chandigarh’s Sector 42 stadium. Punjab Warriors recorded an easy win over Delhi Waveriders on Tuesday and will for more of the same.