The defender recently hung up his boots at the age of 31.
In the last couple of years, Indian hockey has gone through a resurgence. A constant name during all of that success has been Birendra Lakra. The defender became one of the first names on the team-sheet and was a pillar at the back for the Men in Blue.
However, he didn’t always get the plaudits he deserved, but has quietly gone about his business. An unsung hero for the Indian men’s national hockey team, Birendra Lakra featured in 201 international matches in a storied career. Following in the footsteps of his idol Dilip Tirkey, Lakra continued the tradition of solid defenders emerging from the state of Odisha.
Plenty of chances but no finished product
Ever since making his senior national team debut in 2010, Birendra Lakra has been part of several national team successes over the years. The veteran defender announced his retirement from the game on September 30. He finishes his career on a high, in order to make way for several talented youngsters waiting in the wings.
We take a look at Birendra Lakra’s greatest achievements in his successful hockey career:
5. Two-time HIL title winner with Ranchi
In the inaugural Hockey India League (HIL) player auction in 2013, Birendra Lakra was roped in by Ranchi Rhinos. He made an instant impact in the newly-launched domestic league. Lakra guided his team to a second-place finish in the league phase, with 41 points from 12 matches. A 4-2 semi-final victory for Ranchi Rhinos over Uttar Pradesh Wizards setup a final date with Delhi Wave Riders. A 2-1 victory in the final meant Ranchi Rhinos were crowned inaugural HIL champions, with Lakra being a core component behind their success.
However, Ranchi Rhinos were dissolved in the year 2014. The team was replaced by Ranchi Rays. Birendra Lakra was one of the few players who stayed despite the change in ownership. In the 2015 season, Lakra once again proved his mettle helping his team finish second, behind only on goal-difference. In the semi-finals, the team would face Uttar Pradesh Wizards. The match eventually went to penalties and then sudden death, with Lakra missing both chances in the shootout. However, Ranchi Rays scraped through to the final.
The final against Punjab Warriors finished 2-2 and would once again go to a shootout. Birendra Lakra once again failed to convert his effort, but it mattered little as Ranchi Rays won the 2015 HIL title. The penalty misses by the defender were a rare blemish on solid performances throughout the season.
4. Silver medal at 2018 Men’s Hockey Champions Trophy
One of Birendra Lakra’s many successes with the national team came at the 2018 Men’s Champions Trophy. The defender was part of the 18-member travelling squad to Breda, Netherlands.
Under the tutelage of Harendra Singh, the Indian team finished in second place in the league stage. Such was the performance of the Indians that they saw off the challenge of hosts Netherlands and Argentina to advance to the final. A gritty display in the summit clash versus Australia meant the team took the match to a penalty shootout. However, India managed to convert only one of their four efforts, eventually losing 3-1 on penalties.
Despite the defeat, it was a massive morale boost for Birendra Lakra and the Indian national team players, especially given the team had performed miserably in Rio 2016. A silver medal on foreign soil during the re-building phase was a notable achievement indeed.
3. Gold & bronze medals at Asian Games
In the year 2014, Birendra Lakra was once again a crucial component in the Indian national team’s Asian Games campaign. The team travelled to Incheon, South Korea to brush shoulders alongside the continent’s finest. Team India finished in second place in Pool B. Lakra scored a crucial goal against China in the final pool game to get India over the line. It was one of Lakra’s 10 goals in national team colours.
A 1-0 victory over hosts South Korea setup a final meeting with arch-rivals Pakistan in the final. A 1-1 stalemate at the end of regulation time meant that a penalty shootout would determine the champions. When Manpreet Singh missed his effort, the pressure was on India. This is when Birendra Lakra stepped up and converted his effort, which ultimately resulted in India winning the gold medal. It was the third time that the country had won a gold medal in men’s hockey at the Asian Games.
Four years later, Birendra Lakra was a part of the Indian team for the Asian Games in Jakarta. The Indian team once again defeated Pakistan in the bronze medal match to win back-to-back medals in the prestigious continental competition.
2. Silver medal at 2014 Commonwealth Games
2014 was indeed a memorable year for Birendra Lakra. He was part of the 16-man squad which travelled to Glasgow, Scotland for the Commonwealth Games. India finished in second place in Pool A to reach the semi-finals. They had to see off a strong New Zealand challenge to reach the gold medal match.
Despite a comprehensive defeat against Australia in the final, Birendra Lakra and Co. came home with a silver medal. The defender was once again a consistent presence at the back, marshalling the troops as they continued their climb up the hockey ladder. In addition, this was only the second-ever medal for the Indian men’s national hockey team at the Commonwealth Games.
1. Historic bronze medal at Tokyo Olympics
For all his successes with the Indian national hockey team, a medal at the Olympic Games continued to elude Birendra Lakra. The defender had missed out on Rio 2016 due to a knee injury. The team struggled in Brazil without one of its key defenders. Therefore, five years later at the Tokyo Olympics, Birendra Lakra was aiming to put things right and finally fulfill his long-standing dream.
Lakra was named as the national team’s joint co-vice captain alongside Harmanpreet Singh. He knew that he had a significant role to play if India were to end the 41-year drought for an Olympic medal in hockey. The Men in Blue finished in second place in the group stage, with just a solitary defeat in five matches. They then went on to defeat Great Britain in the quarterfinals. During the tournament, Birendra Lakra achieved the milestone of completing 200 senior international caps for the national team. Despite a defeat to Belgium in the semi-finals, the Indian men made amends with a thrilling victory over Germany to bring home a coveted bronze medal.
It was Indian hockey’s first Olympic medal in 41 years. The boy from Sundargarh was a pivotal member of the history-making Indian squad and his name will forever be etched in Indian hockey folklore.
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