A major setback for Indian hockey, the Indian team will now fly to Rio for next month’s Olympics without one of their key defenders Birendra Lakra. Latest reports suggest, Lakra’s name is absent from the 16-member squad for Rio Games. The final team will be officially announced in New Delhi on Tuesday.
Lakra’s exclusion gives young defender Surender Kumar a great opportunity to be included in the squad along with drag-flicker Harmanpreet Singh, who emerged as the best young player at the Champions Trophy.
In that tournament, India recorded their best-ever finish. India are most likely to stick with three penalty corner specialists, with VR Raghunath and Rupinderpal Singh being the other two. PR Sreejesh happens to be the only goalkeeper in the 16-member squad.
Apart from Lakra’s absence, there are no other major surprises. The 25-year-old sustained a ligament tear in his right knee during Ranchi Rays’ Hockey India League clash against Dabang Mumbai in February.
According to experts, an ACL tear takes minimum four months to recover but Hockey India was hopeful Lakra would regain full fitness in time for the Olympics. He didn’t play any further part in the HIL and, in March, underwent a surgery at Mumbai’s SportsMed facility under sports injury expert Dr. Anant Joshi.
The injury saw him missing the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup and Champions Trophy while spending all his time at the camp in rehab. Lakra finally got back on turf last month and also played in the six-nation tournament that concluded last week but didn’t seem fully fit.
Consequently, the selectors and chief coach Roelant Oltmans decided not to risk aggravating his injury and hence has been kept out of the Rio-bound squad.
Lakra, who was awarded Hockey India’s player of the year for 2014, is tipped as one of the most trusted and reliable defenders in the team right now. Together with goalkeeper PR Sreejesh, he serves the key responsibility to make sure the backline remains in shape.
Another unique ability he is gifted with is to launch dangerous counter-attacks. As he started his career as a forward, Lakra comes with natural attacking instincts and it also reflects the confidence with which he moves forward.
Very few Indian players have the ability to turn defence into attack with such ease as Lakra does.
“His performance was monitored closely at the six-nation tournament in Valencia but he did not look very comfortable. So it was decided not to risk him,” a source revealed.