This piece was published in Sportskeeda
He is one of the quietest performers in the Indian hockey team. He is the coy, reticent kind, who invariably lets his hockey stick do the talking during the 70 minutes of play. Meet India’s talented midfielder Birendra Lakra, who oozes hope of shouldering the midfield responsibilities in the national team.
The 22-year-old hails from a nondescript hamlet – Lachhra in Sundargarh district in Odisha – a district which has produced the likes of Dilip Tirkey and Ignace Tirkey, and often serves as the supply line for the national team.
Interestingly, there are as many as eight Odisha players featuring in the Hero Hockey India League and all of them are from the Sundargarh district. Five of them, including Birendra, were snapped up by Ranchi Rhinos (Amit Rohidas, Susanta Tirkey, Aman Miraz Tirkey and Stalin Victor Minz). Two others – Bipin Kerketa will turn out for Delhi Waveriders and Suresh Tappo will play for Mumbai Magicians.
Last six months have been a mixed bag for Indian hockey. The disappointing Olympics journey was atoned for to some extent by an expected but encouraging fourth-place finish in the FIH 34th Champions Trophy and a runners-up finish in the Asian Champions Trophy.
For any upcoming player, exposure to major tournaments is the key and Birendra is richer in experience. “After the disappointment in the Olympics, we did well in the Melbourne and Doha tournaments. On the personal front, I’m happy with my game; there has been improvement in my speed and trapping in the last twelve months or so,” he remarked.
Having done his bit for the national team, Birendra is keyed up to put up a good show in the HIL for Ranchi Rhinos. “We have a lot of talented youngsters in our side. Our foreign players also have plenty of experience. Hopefully, we will come up with a good showing.”
Birendra is still famously remembered for his reverse flick goal against France in the final of the Olympic qualifier last year.
A product of Rourkela Steel Plant’s SAIL Hockey Academy, Birendra is putting in all the hard yards at Ranchi Rhinos’ training sessions. “Our training sessions have come off well. We practice two hours from 9 am to 11 am in the morning and from 4 pm to 6:30 pm in the afternoon besides one hour of gym training. It’s a nice experience for our youngsters to train together with our foreign players,” he said.
There seems to be a lot of talking about teams like Delhi Waveriders and Jaypee Punjab Warriors, possessing enough firepower and being bandied about as the red-hot favourites. Birendra feels that it would all boil down to which team plays good hockey on a particular day. “People may say this team is the favourite and this team is not. In my book, all five teams are evenly balanced. The team which plays good hockey consistently will win the league,” opines Birendra who is still famously remembered for his reverse flick goal against France in the final of the Olympic qualifier last year.
The lanky Odisha lad, who has made 44 international appearances and scored five goals for India, has no doubts that HIL would throw up talented youngsters. “Look, there are a lot of talented youngsters who do not make it to the national camp. These youngsters often go unnoticed. HIL would be a massive opportunity for these young turks to showcase their wares and catch the attention of the selectors,” he touched a realistic point.
Hockey runs in the family. Birendra’s elder brother Bimal also played for India. His sister Asunta Lakra also played for the Indian women’s hockey team. “All three of us played in the same position – as a midfielder,” he said, buzzing with excitement.
Hockey is not the only sport Birendra plays. “I play football during my spare time. I enjoy playing the sport when I’m not playing hockey, which is my first love,” quipped Birendra who sees former India captain Dilip Tirkey as his role model.
“Dilip bhai is one player I look up to. I met him at a church during the New Year. We do discuss about hockey among other things when we catch up,” revealed the youngster whose killer cross was the one from which Nitin Thimmiaah scored the match-clincher against Belgium in the quarterfinals of the 34th FIH Champions Trophy.
Birendra, who honed his skills initially under coaches Peter Tirkey and Herman Lakra and later under Rajukant Saini, is happy to see Ranchi host the semifinals and the final of the Hero Hockey India League. “One thing is for sure; we would get a full house for all our matches held in Ranchi. People here have huge passion for hockey. Of course, we would enjoy the home advantage if we make it to the last-four stage,” the Indian right-half concluded.