Birender Lakra shines outside spotlight

Birender Lakra's, 25, has had a meteoric rise as India’s most reliable fixture in the defence in the last 18 months.

Written by Mihir Vasavda | Raipur | Updated: December 3, 2015 10:02:17 am
Birender Lakra was rated as the standout player at last year’s Asian Games by then coach Terry Walsh. Birender Lakra was rated as the standout player at last year’s Asian Games by then coach Terry Walsh.

Very recently, Birendra Lakra bought a new television set for his modest house in Lachhada village of Sundergarh district in Odisha. It graces his living room. He bought it in hope that his mother and rests of the family would finally be able to watch him on television.

Lachhada, he says, is better described as a jungle than a village. There is hardly any electricity and little access to other basic facilities. When his father passed away in 2009, Lakra was in Malaysia with the junior national team. He got to know about the tragedy only when he returned. Not just because his family did not want to ‘distract’ him, but there was no way to reach him. Telephone lines too were a big deal.

Even now, his family gets to know about his performances only when he, or his sister living in Rourkela, returns home. Things have improved marginally, which prompted him to buy a new TV. “But it’s a jungle area. So for majority period, there is no electricity, making it difficult for my mother to watch my matches,” Lakra says. “BPCL is trying to work things out there. Hopefully, it will be done soon.”

It’s a shame. Because had they watched India’s matches on the tele, they would have been able to witness Lakra’s meteoric rise. Lakra has been one of India’s most consistent performers in the last 18 months. Some might argue he has been more reliable than skipper Sardar Singh himself. Even at the Hockey World League finals here, the 25-year-old has once again has stood out.

The tribal belt in Odisha has a history of producing great players who’ve gone on to be the pillars of national team. Combined with Sundergarh, Rourkela – a forgotten hilly district in northern Orissa – has produced dozens of world-class hockey players who have represented the country at several World Cups and Olympics. However, over the last few years the talent reserve has shrunk considerably, a trend reinforced by the fact that Lakra is the only player from the belt who has consistently been a part of the men’s team over the last five years.

The forward-turned-defender is proud to have taken the tradition forward, following the footsteps of Dilip Tirkey, Michael Kindo and Ignace Tirkey, among others. But a couple of qualities separate Lakra from the rest hailing from the region.

Bucking trend

As a norm, players from Odisha have been successful defenders. They are strong, sturdy and blessed with calm heads, making them excel in the defence. Lakra, however, started as a forward. He played up front, with some success, for his state team as well as his employers BPCL until the foreign coaches felt his technical nous, body balance and surefootedness would be beneficial for the team if he played in a slightly withdrawn role.

Consequently, he was played briefly as a midfielder before he was brought further down the pitch in the defence. “It took some time getting used to. But as a modern-day hockey you have to play at all positions. The flow of the game is such that you need to be comfortable everywhere on the pitch. But it is tough for me to control my attacking instincts at times,” Lakra, a product of SAIL Hockey Academy in Rourkela, explains.

It surprises you that he has speaks in such detail, perhaps it’s something he has learnt over the years. Here’s the thing, the players from tribal belt generally are extremely reticent, speaking in monosyllables. Not because they don’t want to, but they find it tough to communicate what they wish to say. Like a modern-day hockey player, Lakra is also a modern-day Odiya player who knows how to speak.

It reflects on field as well, where he is one of the best communicators. “It is a very important aspect. Look what happened in the two matches where we did not communicate well,” Lakra says, referring to India’s defeats against Argentina and Holland in the group stage of the World League.

Lakra, coached by Kindo in his early days, has been crucial to the team not just because of his defensive abilities. He, undoubtedly, is the cleanest and assured defenders in the team at the moment. Together with goalkeeper PR Sreejesh, he is responsible in ensuring the backline keeps its shape.

But what’s unique is his ability to launch counterattacks. Lakra’s is as assured moving forward as he is while bailing the defence out. Few Indian players have been able to turn defence into attack with such consummate ease as Lakra does.

One trait he shares with his statemates is that he isn’t comfortable being in spotlight. Perhaps, that’s the reason his contribution to the team during the Asian Games last year went largely unnoticed. Then coach Terry Walsh said Lakra was the ‘player of the tournament’, guiding India to top-of-the-podium finish and assuring an Olympic berth.

Cash awards rained on Lakra following the Incheon triumph. But the one that mattered the most to him was when Union minister for petroleum and natural gas Dharmendra Pradhan announced that Lachhada village will be adopted by Lakra’s employers BPCL, whose aim was to provide regular power supply. There has been a marginal improvement. But Lakra is still waiting for the day his family will watch him play on the new television set that graces his living room.

Schedule :18:30 Britain vs India; 20:45 Argentina vs Belgium

Australia beat Germany

RAIPUR: World champions Australia today defeated Olympic champions Germany 4-1 to set up a semifinal clash against title holders Netherlands at the Hockey World League (HWL) Final. It was a hard-fought second quarterfinal between Australia and Germany but in the end it was the Kookaburras who came out victorious. Earlier, defending champions Netherlands had to fight hard to overcome a gritty Canada 2-0 in the first quarterfinal. The world’s top two teams — Australia and Netherlands — will now lock horns in the first semifinal on Friday.

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