It has been 12 months since Birendra Lakra last stepped on to the ultramarine blue turf. A lot has changed since. A new coach now heads the Indian men's hockey team and on the personal front, the Odisha-born defender has turned a husband and father.
For Lakra, though, the joy of making his comeback on home turf at the Hockey World League (HWL) Final in Bhubaneshwar next month has been enough to efface the pangs of self-doubt that came with a hurting knee and a broken spirit.
"When you're injured you've lot of free time on your hands and all you can think of is your injury," he says. "You're flooded with negative thoughts every day."
Having been in and out of the side since missing out on the Rio Olympics due to a knee injury, Lakra was last seen at the Asian Champions Trophy in October 2016. Mental sessions conducted by Hockey India then came to his aid. "I began to take my mind off my situation, my injury and even sports for that matter. Aur cheezon mein time bitaane laga, chahe woh music ho ya TV (I tried to keep myself busy in other interests like listening to music or watching TV). I slowly began to believe that once I'm fit, I would be back in the team."
Fellow backline marshal Rupinder Pal Singh, who is also making a return to the side following a five-month injury layoff, agrees on the impatience that injury can add to a player. Rupinder last turned out for the national team at the Azlan Shah Cup before being laid low by a hamstring injury.
"Kitna time injury thik hone mein lagega pata nahi tha, aur yehi sabse mushkil baat hai (I didn't know how long it's going to take to recover from the injury and that was the difficult part) So every day I would try to run or do a few things which I shouldn't and then end up with pain and a scolding from the physio. I used to do this as a routine for some time before I realized that it would only delay my recovery."
Lakra and Rupinder's inclusion in the 18-man squad for the December event also meant an axe for former captain Sardar Singh. It's also coach Sjoerd Marijne's last big chance to try out player combinations ahead of the World Cup.
"We tried out a combination with Sardar, now we want to see what Rupinder, Harmanpreet and Lakra can do together. We also need to work more on our discipline. If we have to make the really big steps we have to be a machine doing the same things over and over again. That's what we don't do always," Marijne says. The team's final training session in Bengaluru before they left for Bhubaneswar had focused largely on set pieces, presses and long corners.
Placed in Pool B alongside Australia, England and Germany for the HWL, poor conversion of penalty corners has long been India's worry which continued into the Asia Cup. In the opener against Bangladesh, for instance, which India went on win 7-0, they ended up converting only two of the 13 penalty corners.
Part of that problem, the coach says, could be now addressed with Rupinder's return offering an additional dragflick option besides defenders Harmanpreet Singh, Varun Kumar, Dipsan Tirkey and Amit Rohidas.
"We're in a tricky pool and in Rupinder we now have an extra weapon who can help get our conversion higher," Marijne says. "The guy's a quality player and we've been really careful with the number of PCs he takes during training sessions so that he doesn't injure himself again."
For both Lakra and Rupinderpal, who have 300-plus international caps between them and are readying for their first assignment under Marijne, the change is not so much about structure as it is about heightened contests for a place in the side.
"Now with some young boys also in the senior team, it's a good chance to improve. No matter how senior you are, you can't be sure of your place in the side anymore. It's a great thing and will only push everyone to work harder," Lakra says.
For instance, alongside Lakra in the defenders line-up for the HWL there's also 19-year-old Tirkey, who was part of the junior World Cup team and has now made a seamless transition into the seniors. As for Rupinder, Harmanpreet has now grown into a stiff competitor for a place in the starting XI. Marijne reckons that internal competition is the surest way to get the best out of players.
"It's not the easiest thing to execute. But everyone knows they have to perform or the next player is ready to step in."