Birendra Lakra and SV Sunil smiled sheepishly when asked how they felt playing in a team coached by former teammate and captain Sardar Singh. “It’s not weird under him. He’s a strict disciplinarian,” Sunil said. Lakra chipped in: “He has been a role model. He’s always been known for his fitness and discipline.”
It’s come full circle for the trio that formed the core of the team when India clinched the Asia Cup at the previous edition in 2017. Then, after heading in different directions, they are reunited.
Sunil, playing his fourth Asia Cup, a testimony to his longevity, was on a sabbatical when he was summoned to join the training camp for the Commonwealth Games. Lakra was enjoying his retirement, juggling time between family and office work, when he, too, got the call-up. Sardar, who’d been earning his coaching credentials, had been waiting for this opportunity.
The Asia Cup, starting in Jakarta on Monday, might not be of huge significance for the defending champions. The teams that reach the semifinals of the tournament will make it to January’s World Cup, but India, being hosts, do not have to worry about qualification. Yet, when they take the field against Pakistan in their opening match, there’ll be some fascinating storylines to follow. Sardar’s debut in the dugout – he’ll be working alongside junior team coach BJ Kariappa – will be one of them.
The other important thread to follow during the tournament will be the return of Simranjeet Singh. The forward last played in India’s bronze medal playoff at the Tokyo Olympics against Germany, where he scored two goals that had a decisive role in the outcome of the match. Since then, he’d been nursing an injury and missed all Pro League matches as well as the Asian Champions Trophy.
Simranjeet’s comeback, coupled with the return of Sunil and Lakra, will be crucial for India given that the rest of the team has little-to-no senior international experience. Ten players, who were all part of last year’s junior World Cup, will make their senior team debut on Monday. This includes the likes of drag-flicker Yashdeep Siwach, defenders Abhisek Lakra and Manjeet, midfielder Vishnukant Singh and forward Uttam Singh. Midfielders Mareeswaren Sakthivel and Sheshe Gowda BM, and forwards Abharan Sudev, Pawan Rajbhar and S Karthi will also make their first India appearances on Monday.
The youngsters will immediately be thrown at the deep end when they open their campaign against Pakistan, who too have travelled with a young squad as part of their rebuilding process.
“We’ll need to motivate them, guide them. If we get affected by the excitement and the pressure of playing Pakistan, the younger players too will come under pressure,” Sunil said.
This young bunch, led by two veterans and coached by a former India captain, was selected for this tournament as preparation for July-August’s Commonwealth Games. With an eye on the Asian Games, India had decided to send their second-string squad to Birmingham. To give the hastily-assembled group some match practice, Hockey India chose to send the group for the Asia Cup, where not a lot is at stake from an Indian point of view.
Now with the Asian Games postponed, it’s unclear whether the main playing group coached by Graham Reid will take part at the CWG or the team currently in Jakarta. The players aren’t fretting over it. “I am at a stage of my career where I approach each tournament as if it’s my last,” Sunil said. “So, I hope to win this one, and not worry about what’s in store in the future.”
India vs Pakistan: Live on Star Sports Network at 5pm