For full-back Birendra Lakra, the turf at the Mumbai Hockey Association Stadium brings back memories of the day his career suffered a setback. It was here, in January 2016, that he had torn the Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) on his right knee – an injury which resulted in him being out of the Indian team for eight months. Post-injury Lakra hasn’t been the player he used to be.
“You can never tell when or where you will get injured, but yes, there is a particular memory I have here,” he says about the injury which according while he was playing for Ranchi Rays during the Hockey India League. Lakra went through surgery soon after, but two years on he is struggling to seal his place as a full-back in the national squad.
Earlier this month, the 27-year-old was back in the Indian team for the World League Final at his home turf in Bhubaneswar.
His performances however, were wanting. He had lost most of his pace, the assurance in his tackling skills dwindled, and as the tournament progressed, his appearances on-field became a rarity as India went on to claim the bronze medal.
“I’m coming back after a year,” he says. “Performance jo pehle jaisa tha, main waisa nahi khel paaya.”
But it was a comeback nonetheless.
Before the injury, Lakra was the spearhead of the Indian defence. He combined pace and hard running with anticipation and fearless tackling. These were traits that had made him one of the better defenders the country had ever produced, and naturally, he was expected to put on a stellar show at the 2016 Olympics.
Only, he would never make it for the marquee event. “I was tried out at a six-nation tournament in Spain before the Olympics, but my match fitness was not good enough,” he recalls. “Dukh hota hai, par jo hakikat hai wo badal nahi sakte.”
There was still a lot expected from Lakra post the Rio Games. He was called back to the national camp to complete his rehabilitation process – a decision that served him well when it came to dealing with the mental stress that comes with injury.
“If you’re dropped from camp and sent home, there is a lot of tension and you lose motivation. Akele rehne se bahut mushkil ho jata hai,” he says. “But there is always hope when you’re with the players you’ve spent so much time with and with the physios. You have that self-confidence that you will get back.”
Sessions with a psychologist too were arranged at the camp for the full-back from Lachchada village in Sundargarh district of Orissa. “We’d talk a lot about the 2014 Asian Games final we won, just to shift the mind away from the injury,” he explains.
He got another chance to test himself at the Asian Champions Trophy in October 2016. India did manage to win the title with Lakra in the ranks, but he still wasn’t as sharp as he’d hoped. Two months later, competition in the national squad grew once the U-21s won the Junior World Cup. In fact, 21-year-old Harmanpreet Singh had been added to the senior squad for the Olympics in place of Lakra.
Despite the worrying lack of form, in Bhubaneswar, there were a few sparks of brilliance from the holder of 141 international caps. “There is no injury fear, but I need to improve my fitness,” he says.
He’s in Mumbai at the moment, playing at the All-India Bombay Gold Cup. He plays an important role in the heart of the BPCL defence, the team he plays for. Lakra is trying to work his way back up, but for now, he’s chasing the shadow of the player he used to be.
CAG hold BPCL while ONGC beat Customs
PTI adds: Delhi outfits, Comptroller and Auditor General and Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Limited, had mixed fortunes in the 52nd All India Bombay Gold Cup hockey tournament here.
CAG, who had been trounced 6-1 by Bharat Petroleum Corporation in the final of the same competition two years ago, fought hard today to come from a goal down and hold BPCL to a 1-1 draw at the MHAL-Mahindra Stadium.
CAG were down 0-1 following a 20th minute strike off a penalty stroke award, by BPCL’s Varun Kumar before securing parity in the 60th minute through a field goal scored by Imran Khan in the Pool B game. ONGC, on the other hand, took a commanding 4-0 lead at half-time and then increased it to 5-0 soon after the break.
But Customs pulled one back before ONGC notched their sixth and last goal via a penalty corner strike by Mandeep Singh who completed a hat-trick. Later, in a Pool-C match Indian Oil drubbed local outfit Western Railway 4-2.