‘Rui jaisa naram’. An old friend from Pune compares Akash Chikte to Yavatmal’s most famous crop. ‘Soft as cotton’, though, is an intriguing description for a goalkeeper. But then, Chikte ticks most exceptions for a goalkeeper. They are imposing creatures. Chikte isn’t. They are loud. Our man is shy to the extent that he finds comfort behind the goalie’s grill so that people cannot see his face when he is on the field.
On Wednesday, the 25-year-old shed those tags. He came alive in front of nearly 10,000 fans at the Kalinga Stadium, jumping, punching the year and yelling something incoherent to his teammates. But what he was saying did not matter. The 5’8” goalkeeper made himself big against the physically stronger and technically superior Belgian forwards as he pulled off four saves to guide India to the semifinals of the World League, sending the crowd into a delirium.
Three years ago, Chikte was part of the same crowd when captain PR Sreejesh pulled off Superman-like saves in India’s 1-0 win over Belgium in the same stage of the Champions Trophy. With Sreejesh out owing to an ACL tear, Chikte has emerged as India’s go-to man, especially in penalty shootouts.
The Armyman is considered one of the strongest stoppers in one-on-one situations. However, he isn’t as effective as a shot-stopper, especially from penalty corners. “That is something I am trying to work on, mainly my positioning during corners,” says Chikte, whose father is a welder in Yavatmal.
In that, he is complimented well by state-mate Suraj Karkera. The 22-year-old is the latest product from Mumbai’s famous hockey coach Merzban Patel’s stable. Bawa, as he is known in Mumbai circles, has moulded almost every international from Mumbai in the last decade and a half.
When Karkera came to him at the Children’s Academy, where Bawa is a coach, there was an instant feeling that the city has found its successor to former India goalkeeper Adrian D’Souza. “His style, the way he talks and stands in the goal and even the type of kit he wears is so similar to Adrian,” says Devinder Walmiki, who represented India at the Rio Olympics.
Karkera was regarded as one of the best junior players in the country but was mysteriously left out of the squad for last year’s junior World Cup. Luck eluded him again when he picked up an injury days before he was to leave for his debut senior tournament, the World League Semifinals, in London earlier this year.
Finally, he got his chance at the Asia Cup in October, which India won without losing a match. Chikte was adjudged the tournament’s best goalkeeper and Karkera played a reliable back-up. After several years of trying to find Sreejesh’s back-up, India finally had an option. But it took the team two goalkeepers to stand-in for one Sreejesh.
For most parts of the match on Wednesday, it looked like Karkera would seal his spot as the number 2 goalkeeper. He started the crucial game and made important interceptions, showing no signs of nerves. His movements were decisive and ensured the defence kept its shape, which gave Belgium very little space.
Till the Belgium game, India coach Sjoerd Marijne gave one half to each player to get some experience. However, Karkera’s near-flawless performance forced the coach to change his strategy and continue him in goal. As minutes ticked by, it looked like Chikte was being pipped by his younger colleague but Karkera let two goals slip, which prompted Marijne to make a change. “I think Suraj did well in the first half. The first (goal from) penalty corner was not his mistake, the second one I think he was too far in the middle. That’s when I changed him with Akash,” Marijne said.
It’s tough for a goalkeeper to get straight into action without a proper warm-up, but Chikte knew this was his only chance to stay relevant in the squad. With Sreejesh likely to return for India’s next big assignment—- the Commonwealth Games in April — this tournament is virtually an audition for the position of back-up goalkeeper.
If Karkera had earned brownie points with his performance in the first three quarters, Chikte reminded of his quality in the shootouts. It ensured India stayed alive in the tournament and also made sure that the cat-and-mouse race between the two custodians continues.