Birendra Lakra: Time for Lakra to redeem himself in Tokyo 2020

The sturdy defender has been named the vice-captain of the Indian hockey team
By Soham Mukherjee

From a very young age, often the thought of representing India had crossed Birendra Lakra's mind when he would be playing hockey on the dustbowls of Lachchada, a small village in the Sundargarh district of Odisha where Hockey is a way of life. More than 60 national players have represented India from Sundargarh including legends of the game like his idol Dilip Tirkey and Deepsan Tirkey.

And when Lakra opened the scoring for India in the final game of the Olympic Qualifying Tournament against France in 2012, which ensured India's participation at London 2012, it was an euphoric moment for the defender.

However, in the main event, it was a disappointing show from the Indian team. They could not win a single match in the group stage, conceded 22 goals, and even lost to South Africa 3-2 to finish at the bottom in the final standings. In short, it was a tournament to forget for Lakra and co.

Four years later, his fortunes did not favour him once again. When his teammates were gunning to recover the lost pride in Rio, destiny had other ideas for the 31-year-old. In 2015, he suffered a ligament tear in his right knee which ruled him out of Rio 2016. While the team boarded the flight to Brazil, Lakra was struggling to even stand on both feet.

“It was really a hard time for me in 2016 when I missed out on the chance of representing India in the Rio Olympics,” he said before flying to Tokyo.

He made a comeback in 2017 but fitness issues continued to plague and he missed several tournaments. It took him almost 18 months to recover and get back to his best.

In the 2018 Champions Trophy, Lakra was a rock in defence. He was outstanding in carrying out his responsibilities at the back and India had the best defence at the end of the group stage, conceding just six goals including a clean sheet against arch-rivals Pakistan. Since then, he has not looked back.

In the FIH Pro League, he made regular appearances and regained the trust of coach Graham Reid. Against reigning Olympic champions Argentina, India won 3-0 away from home at Buenos Aires in 2021 and it was Lakra who stood out with his defensive work at crucial junctures.

Although the Coronavirus pandemic completely disrupted the international hockey calendar, the Indian team made two exposure trips to South America and Europe as part of their preparations for the Olympics, where Lakra once played an instrumental part.

"The tour of Argentina has given us a lot of confidence in our abilities. We played very well as a unit, and we took away a lot of positives from that tour,” said the defender.

When India will take on Great Britain on Sunday in the quarterfinals of the ongoing Tokyo 2020 Olympics, Lakra will leave his all on the pitch to take one step further to realising his dream. His idol and former defender Dilip Tirkey had won many laurels for the country, but an Olympic medal remained beyond his reach. Lakra remains motivated to do the outrageous and give double the effort, as only a podium finish in Tokyo will make him forget the pain of missing out on Rio.