Drag-flicker Rupinder Pal Singh and defender Birendra Lakra, who played starring roles in the Indian hockey team's historic bronze medal-winning Tokyo Olympics campaign, on Thursday announced their international retirements within hours of each other, creating quite a flutter.
While Rupinder quit “to make way for youngsters” and announced his decision by posting a statement on his twitter page, Lakra's retirement was confirmed by Hockey India.
It has been learnt from reliable sources that both the players decided to quit after they were informed that they will not find a place in India's scheme of things going forward and will be ignored for the national camp that starts in Bengaluru next week.
The 30-year-old, regarded as one of the best drag-flickers of the country, Rupinder represented India in 223 matches.
Nicknamed ‘Bob’, Rupinder scored four crucial goals, including a penalty stroke in the third-place match against Germany, during India's bronze-medal winning campaign in Tokyo.
“The past couple of months have undoubtedly been the best days of my life. Standing on the podium in Tokyo along with my teammates with whom I have shared some of the most incredible experiences of my life was a feeling I will cherish forever,” Rupinder wrote in a statement on his official twitter handle.
“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.” Hours later, Lakra followed suit with Hockey India officially announcing his retirement. The player is, however, yet to make a statement of his own on the matter.
“A solid defender and one of the most influential Indian Men's Hockey Team figures, the Odisha star has announced his retirement from the Indian national team. Happy Retirement, Birendra Lakra,” Hockey India tweeted.
The 31-year-old Lakra was one of the vice captains of India's bronze medal-winning side in Tokyo.
He was also a part of the 2014 gold medal-winning Incheon Asian Games team and the side that claimed bronze in 2018 Jakarta.
Lakra, who was born on February 3, 1990 in Lachchada village in the Sundergarh district of Odisha, played 201 matches for India.
A a reliable centre-back known for his calm and composed attitude when put under pressure, Lakra made his debut in 2012 in a Test series against South Africa and was part of the Indian team that finished last in the 2012 London Games.
Rupinder's decision was also motivated by his injury breakdowns.
According to sources, Rupinder wanted to continue till next year's Asian Games but once he was told that he won't be selected in the national camp, the player decided to make way for youngsters.
Rupinder's journey from Faridkot in Punjab to the podium in Tokyo was full of hardships and several comebacks.
Soon after making his international debut in May 2010 in the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup in Ipoh, Rupinder became a vital cog in India's backline and along with VR Raghunath, formed a lethal dragflick combination.
Apart from his fearless defending, Rupinder was the 'go-to' man for any skipper for penalty corner and spot situations.
Rupinder's well-built physique and tall frame was a dangerous sight for any team's defence in penalty corner situations. He was also known for his smart variations.
He was named as vice-captain of India's 2014 World Cup campaign besides being a member of the Commonwealth Games silver medal-winning side the same year.
Rupinder has two Asian Games medals in his kitty — a gold in 2014 Incheon and bronze in 2018 Jakarta.
But he became one of the scapegoats after the Asian Games disappointment as he was mostly ignored in the overhaul of the team.
In between, injuries too didn't help his cause as a hamstring problem almost ended his career in 2017, a time he once described as the "toughest phase" of his life.
Harmanpreet Singh benefitted the most from Rupinder's six-month long injury lay-off but after his successful return, the two became India's trump cards from short corners and their pairing continued till Tokyo.
Rupinder's greatest success came in this year's Tokyo Games.
“I have had the honour of wearing the India jersey in 223 matches and each of these matches were special. 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,” he said. “I will carry with me nothing but great memories of playing with some of the most talented players in world hockey and I have immense respect for each one of them,” he said.
“My teammates have been a great pillar of support all these years and I wish them the best as they surge ahead in taking India to newer heights in hockey.” Rupinder credited his success to his friends and family, especially his parents.
“None of this success I enjoy today would have been possible without the support and encouragement from my friends and family, particularly my mother and father. I walked into every match thinking of them.” He also thanked Hockey India and all those who played a big part in shaping his career.
“I thank Hockey India for having faith in me all these years. I also thank Baba Shershah Wali academy and coaches, Firozpur where my journey in hockey began. I thank my friends and coaches from Faridkot from where I have some good memories as a young player.”