The Sundergarh region in Odisha acts like an assembly line of top-quality players for the Indian hockey teams.
Former captains Dilip Tirkey, Sunita Lakra and Asunta Lakra hail from the district as do Ignace Tirkey, Bimal Lakra, Amit Rohidas and more recently, Dipsan Tirkey.
So when Birendra Lakra was born in the northwest district of the state, he was destined to play for the Indian hockey team someday.
The tough initiation
While Sundergarh may produce several hockey stars who have popularized it in the region, ironically it does not have the proper infrastructure - proper electricity only arrived in 2010 - to develop them and most people’s passion for it stems out of poverty.
“When children are growing up, they usually pick up a bamboo stick, which comes free of cost, and that is used to play hockey there,” revealed Birendra Lakra in a chat with the Olympic Channel.
“Over the decades, people have always chosen hockey as their pastime because it doesn't cost them much.”
Be that as the case, the class of players to emerge from there also inspires kids and Birendra Lakra had already picked one while growing up. “My inspiration while growing up was Dilip Tirkey, because when I was younger, he was the captain of the Indian hockey team,” he said.
“You would read about him everywhere and he was one of India's best players at that time, and that really just motivated me to also take up the sport seriously.
“We would not have exposure to a lot of international players back then, so we knew who Dilip was, and I have always had huge respect for him.”
Missing the Rio bus
This year marks a decade with the Indian hockey team for Birendra Lakra, which is a great feat in itself, considering he has had two anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries.
The first injury occurred in 2016 and forced him to miss the Rio Olympics, a difficult moment indeed. “That period when you are injured is very tough,” noted the Indian hockey defender.
“Especially for a player who plays a team sport - when you are in an individual sport, you won't have teammates training in front of you or playing on TV. But I always received overwhelming support from everyone whenever I was feeling low.
“When I stepped onto the field again, I realized that the mental aspect is the most important one, and you always need to be very strong, and not allow negative thoughts to cloud your thinking.”
Birendra Lakra was out of action for only five months though - the team physio got him to do three sessions in a day to rehabilitate him and the experience came in handy when the ACL cropped up again in 2018.
“When it happened again, I knew I had overcome much worse before, so I was prepared and I made sure that I was always focused on my aim, which was to recover in time for the World Cup which was in Bhubaneswar.”
How hockey has evolved
The past decade has seen men’s hockey go through a number of changes, with regards to rules and analyses and a new powerhouse in the form of Belgium who have dethroned traditional forces Australia and the Netherlands.
Birendra Lakra felt the game had quickened in pace and the in-depth analysis means that no opposition is easy. “We used to have two halves of 35 minutes each, and it wasn't as fast as it is now,” he stated.
“Back when I started, teams around the world were not too much into video and stats analysis, but if you look at the sport now, even little things like making or not making a run matters a lot and I am really happy that our team has also evolved so much through these changes.”
Gunning for Tokyo podium
The 30-year-old is good friends with Indian hockey team goalkeeper PR Sreejesh but it was not always the case. Though the age-gap between them is only two years, the former’s early initiation into the team made him a ‘senior’.
The custodian is constantly seen talking on the field, motivating his team and he had once stated that he occasionally cussed to get rid of his frustration. The fiery nature made Birendra Lakra initially sceptical of approaching him.
“When I would train and play in front of him (PR Sreejesh), I would always be a little cautious not to make a mistake because I didn't want him to get upset with me,” he revealed.
However, their bond developed after they became roommates during a national camp, which helped them understand each other and the duo even went to watch movies together.
Birendra Lakra has now evolved into a senior himself and along with Sreejesh and Rupinder Pal Singh, will be responsible to look after the youngsters and motivate them during a low period, a role he claims to take great pride in.
The Indian hockey team had begun 2020 well and the defender believes they are on the right track.
“We were aiming for the podium, and it will be the same next year as well,” he said. “With more time to prepare now, we will obviously look to peak at the right moment and hope things fall into place.”