Indian Hockey's Senior Stars From Tokyo Olympics Retire: What's the Real Story?
Two of India's Tokyo Olympics stars announced their retirement last week.
The shine on the Tokyo 2020 Olympic hockey bronze medal hasn’t even worn off yet and, within weeks of the path-breaking achievement, a spate of retirements from top stars has gripped everyone’s attention.
The first of the big announcements came when star drag-flicker and a veteran of 223 matches, Rupinder Pal Singh, shared a long, heartfelt note on social media, announcing his exit from the world of international hockey. Hours later, defence stalwart Birendra Lakra, who played his 200th match in Tokyo, too took to the platform stressing that it was “time to allow the next generation of players to experience this great feeling of playing for India.”
The announcements came just days before the national squad was to assemble in Bengaluru on 4 October to prepare for the next year’s Asian Games, a direct qualification event for the 2024 Paris Olympics.
Clearly, the timing was not coincidental. Insiders reveal that Rupinder, Lakra and Sunil were all keen to carry on and were hoping to “at least play till the 2022 Asian Games”, but the think-tank had other plans.
Changeover After the Olympics Cycle
It is common knowledge that most nations opt for the “churn and change” policy after every Olympics cycle with the focus firmly and squarely on the players who can last the next four years. Fresh legs are inducted and prepared to get them going for the pinnacle of it all – the Olympics. And with India’s stupendous triumph at Tokyo where they ended the 41-year-old medal jinx, the stakes are even higher.
Having tasted success at the Olympics – a tournament the country had dominated in the past with eight gold medals but in which it had not fared well in the recent years – it is imperative that the federation, coaches, and players themselves build on from hereon.
It is understood that the think-tank and the coaches held individual meetings with most of these players in New Delhi in the last one week, and the players were informed that they were “no longer a part of the scheme of things for now, or even the future”, keeping in mind the next Olympics cycle. It was the end of the road for them.
In such a scenario, the players could have either continued to wait and watch in a hope to be picked up again – which wasn’t a probability – or hang up their boots. They “chose” a dignified exit than being “dropped” from among the core group of probables.
Retirements and the Indian Hockey
Retirements in hockey are rare. In fact, there are many big names who have not officially announced their retirement till date. As is the trend in many other sports, hockey too had been no different with most dropped players choosing to wait on the sidelines in the hope to be picked up again while years passed by.
The incidents of the last week take one back to 2018, when midfield superstar and former captain Sardar Singh became India’s first top player in recent times to officially announce his retirement.
In September 2018, India had just returned from their bronze-medal finish at the Jakarta Asian Games and were months away from the World Cup at home. That the squad had missed a direct opportunity to qualify for the Tokyo Games, and also failed to defend their Asiad title, had not gone down well with the think tank.
It is believed that Sardar, who was not in the best of forms at that time, “was told that his services were no longer required”, leading to the hockey great’s exit from the game.
Among the known names, former midfielder Viren Rasquinha was perhaps the first international player of modern times to announce his retirement merely days after being omitted from the 2006 Doha Asian Games squad. In 2010, the legendary Dilip Tirkey quit after having represented India in a total of 412 matches, a record that still stands.
Focus on the Future
In modern times, as the game is becoming faster and faster, career spans are getting shorter.
Undoubtedly, India’s success at Tokyo has given a huge fillip to the game in the country. And it is important that India quickly builds on from here.
The signs were clear for experienced striker Sunil, who was left out of the Tokyo final 16. For years altogether, Indian hockey’s ‘Usain Bolt’, with lightning speed and exemplary forays on the right flank, Sunil had given many moments of joy to the Indian fans. But with hockey becoming more and more a young man’s game and fresher legs the need of the hour, the senior pro’s exit seemed imminent.
Lakra has been India’s go-to-man in the defence and has been a delight to watch for almost a decade. His supreme control, dependability and solid defensive tactics had given India what they lacked since the exit of the hockey great Dilip Tirkey, also of Odisha.
The 6’ 5’’ tall Rupinder emerged from the shadows of his idol Sandeep Singh in 2009, and gradually owned and held the space for 13 years. The defender from Faridkot, Punjab, made the art of drag-flick famous in the country and was known as one of the best in the world. His career was injury-marred but the defender possessed a heart of gold and nerves of steel. Determination, hard work and will to succeed remained his forte.
But with the young and accurate drag-flick specialist Harmanpreet Singh, and youngsters Amit Rohidas and Varun Kumar, slowly rising through the ranks, it was getting difficult for Rupinder to hold on to his regular spot in the team. In the last few years, he had missed out on several tournaments owing to either form or injury, and was not always the first-choice given the quality of back-up players.
At a junction like this when future holds more importance than the past, emotions are bound to take over. It is never easy for the players, coaches and even fans to see their stars fade away. But such is the nature of sport. It is not without reason that it is called “fickle”.
It could be argued that perhaps the federation and the coaches could have offered a farewell stage to its long-serving warriors. Or even let them call halt to their careers at the 2022 Asian Games in China. But then there are always ifs and buts.
India will miss its stars, but perhaps it was a decision best taken in the interest of the sport.
Adios, Rupinder, Lakra, and Sunil. The world of hockey will truly miss you!
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