Retirements of Rupinder, Birendra signal post-Tokyo Olympics shake up

Spots to open up in the Indian hockey team for juniors, those on fringes.

Signalling an infusion of fresh blood in view of a shortened Olympic cycle, and to build on the current momentum, the Indian hockey team began its life post-Tokyo with a massive shake-up, with two stars of the medal-winning squad announcing international retirements on Thursday. A few more players from the core group, who were not a part of the Olympic campaign, are likely to follow suit and draw the curtains on their careers in the coming days.

Defenders Rupinderpal Singh and Birendra Lakra called it a day on their careers with the national team, which lasted for more than a decade and ended on a high with a bronze medal at the Tokyo Games last month, the country’s first medal at the Olympics after 41 years.

Rupinderpal and Lakra’s announcements came just days before the team reassembles at its training base in Bangalore to begin preparations for next year’s Asian Games, which double up as a qualifier for the 2024 Paris Olympics.

It is believed the duo had spoken to chief coach Graham Reid and officials at Hockey India, and after being informed they would not feature in the team’s plans going forward, they decided to call it quits.

Long passes

For more than a decade, Rupinderpal and Lakra were routine fixtures in the line-up, using their unique skill-sets to shore up the Indian defence.

Rupinderpal, 30, was reliable as a defender, using his long reach to execute clean tackles inside the ‘D’, but his skills were more useful in attack. His long, powerful passes from one half of the pitch to another split the opposition defence and created goal-scoring opportunities for the forwards and his drag-flicks came in handy during crunch situations.

Regarded as one of India’s best penalty-corner specialists, Rupinderpal scored four goals at the Tokyo Olympics, including one in the bronze medal playoff against Germany. It is learnt he was keen to play till next year’s Asian Games, which will take place in Hangzhou, China. However, it was made clear to him that he won’t be among the players who will be called for the national camp, which will begin next week.

“I believe it is time for me to make way for young and talented players to experience every great joy that I have felt in these last 13 years of representing India,” Rupinderpal wrote on his social media page. “I am leaving the team feeling happy and content as we have conquered the greatest dream which was to win an Olympic medal for India.”

His partner at the back, Lakra, continued Odisha’s long-standing tradition of producing solid defenders. However, the 31-year-old had 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 played briefly as a midfielder before he was brought further down the pitch in the defence. At his peak, Lakra was the cleanest and the most assured defender in the team with a unique ability to launch counter attacks because of his natural urge to move forward with the ball.

Both were a part of the 2014 Asian Games winning team and other landmark triumphs over the last decade that ultimately led to a podium finish in Tokyo.

Apart from Rupinderpal and Lakra, at least four other players are expected to announce their retirements in the coming days. These players were not with the team in Tokyo but have been a constant presence at national camps and other major tournaments in the last decade or so.

The exit of six veterans in one go will open up spots in different positions for others who have been on the fringes and for some in the junior team, who will be hoping to get bumped up to the senior squad after the junior World Cup in November-December. Reid is likely to be involved in the preparations of the junior team for their World Cup as well.

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