Sharing the path to glory

Sharing the path to glory

Nithin and Nikkin Thimmaiah could form a lethal combination upfront for India in the coming days

Whenever the Indian national hockey team takes the field, the technical desk is often left with the ‘Singh’ conundrum. There has hardly been an instance when the national team has not been served by a handful of members from the hockey-loving community, and at times there’ve been cases where 2-3 players have shared the first name too.

At the recently concluded Asia Cup in Ipoh, Malaysia, the officials and fans were left with a similar conundrum -- albeit of a much smaller scale -- ‘The Thimmaiahs’. Apart from sharing the same surname, both Nithin and Nikkin have a lot more in common too with only their height, speed and age being the major separators.

Friends since childhood, both their fathers played hockey at the national level and became good pals later, both did their schooling in St Joseph’s Indian High School in Bangalore, both honed their skills at the Sports Authority of India, both pursued their degree at St Joseph’s Arts and Science College and both play as strikers. Incidentally, both were room-mates too at the Asia Cup, where Nikkin made his international debut while Nithin completed about 15 months of playing at the top level.

“I was really happy when Nikkin was picked for the Asia Cup,” said Nithin of Nikkin, whom he considers as a younger brother. “Our fathers have known each other for a long time and I’ve known Nikkin as a kid. To play for the country together is something we dreamt of since our childhood and everything is so surreal.”

While plenty of similarities exist between the talented duo, who hail from the Virajpet district in Coorg, they do share some differences as well and have taken somewhat varying routes to their cherished goal of wearing the national colours.

The 24-year-old Nithin, whose father MN Thimmaiah represnted Services, needed no introduction to the national game and started playing it in school. His first break came in sixth standard when he attended the SAI trials and was instantly selected. Although he played the game with passion, the 6’3’’ strapping striker didn’t necessarily impress upon the wise men in his junior days, making the cut to the State team in 2008 for the Murugappa Cup in Chennai, while doing his final year BA. 

Thereafter, he featured regularly in the State squad before earning a call-up as a guest player from the Indian Oil Corporation Limited in 2010. He represented the oil major for a year and made a strong impact for runners-up Karnataka in the 2011 Hockey India National Championships in Bhopal.

He then made his way into the national probables camp in June, catching the eye of then coach Michael Nobbs and eventually graduated to the national team for the tour of France and Spain last May.

Nithin, blessed with good height and physique, didn’t make the grade for the disastrous Olympics Games which took place two months later but has been a regular member since the 2012 Champions Trophy where India finished surprise fourth. While he can appear lethargic at times, the plus point of Nithin is his natural strength which he uses well to bulldoze past defenders.

Just like Nithin, Nikkin too is a late bloomer who could have been lost to athletics. A natural athlete, the 22-year-old Nikkin dabbled between hockey and 400-metre running during his school days before turning his attention to athletics in the ninth standard.
Training under former 400M ace Uday Prabhu and sprinter Anand Shetty at the Bangalore Sports Club, Nikkin represented Karnataka in Junior Nationals (under-16 category) while studying in the 10th standard. Just when his athletics career was beginning to take shape, Nikkin abruptly turned his attention to hockey, much to his coaches’ consternation.

Having not played serious hockey for almost three years, Nikkin knew he had a tough task ahead if he wished to make a career out of hockey. Within a year, in 2010, he represented the State in the IHF Nationals where he won the ‘Best Player’ award.

The award vindicated his self-belief and there was no turning back for the gifted youngster, who kept making an impression. He shone at HI’s 2012 Nationals in Bangalore, connecting well with Nithin, SK Uthappa and MB Aiyappa and then picked up the ‘Best Forward’ award at this year’s Nationals in Pune.

A call-up to the National camp came immediately and after a spate of injuries to other key strikers, he was drafted into the National team for the Asia Cup where he grabbed the opportunity with both hands, scoring a peach in the final against Korea.

“It was dream come true for me,” said the 5’7” Nikkin. “My dad (CT Thimmaiah) also got called up for the national camp but never made it to the main team. It was my goal to break into the national team, especially for my dad. This is a great moment for us.”

Ever since his switchover, things have happened at a rapid pace for Nikkin and national selector and former captain Arjun Halappa sounded a word of caution. “Nikkin’s rise has been quite rapid. He is indeed impressive -- he’s got speed, skill and wonderful presence of mind. He has all the trappings of a top striker.

“That’s why we picked him despite his limited experience. But he shouldn’t get carried away. This is just the start of a journey and he needs to keep his feet firmly on the ground and work hard. Earning a berth for the 2014 World Cup squad -- considering India have almost qualified for – should be high on his mind,” added Halappa.

While both Nikkin and Nithin have made a mark, the competition for places in the national team will hot up when SV Sunil, Danish Mujtaba, Gurwinder Singh Chandi and Akashdeep Singh return from injury. With the Junior World Cup coming up this December, a few more talents will also emerge. But, if the Thimmaiahs maintain their form and keep working hard, it could well be the start of a nice ride.