Hockey India’s CWG plan rescued by Asia Cup, but what does the future hold in store for back-from-retirement Rupinder, Sunil and Birendra?

NEW DELHI: Rupinder Pal Singh wanted to retire at the peak of his career. He did so. In September last year, after India’s Tokyo heist to reclaim the long lost position on the Olympic hockey podium, the drag-flicker made the call. “That was always the plan,” he said, announcing his retirement a month after India’s bronze-medal finish. But he didn’t know that the ‘ultimate planner’, the almighty, had written another chapter in the Faridkot boy’s hockey life.
Perhaps Rupinder has kept it for later, maybe for his autobiography, to publicly reveal whether he was called back out of retirement or took a voluntary decision; but he would have never thought that he would come back and lead the Indian team in a tournament as skipper.
The 31-year-old veteran, Bob or Bobby to family and friends, will captain the Indian team at the Asia Cup beginning later this month.
Rupinder Pal Singh. (Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images)
Rupinder’s return, along with that of Birendra Lakra and SV Sunil — both of whom announced their retirements almost simultaneously with Rupinder, coincided with Hockey India’s plans to send a ‘B’ team to the Commonwealth Games. It was a move made to protect the first-team players from burnout and/or injury ahead of the more important Asian Games.
A list of India ‘B’ players was thus announced, with Rupinder, Sunil and Lakra part of the squad that had former captain Sardar Singh as coach.
But Covid came back into the equation and the worsening pandemic numbers in China forced the Hangzhou Asian Games to be postponed.
Hockey India’s plans were now in need of some chess-like moves. They had two squads — A and B, with one tournament, the CWG. But the Asia Cup came to the federation’s rescue, and they found a way to accommodate all.
SV Sunil. (Photo by Steve Bardens/Getty Images)
Rupinder was named captain of the Asia Cup squad, Lakra and Sunil were also included and Sardar was named as coach, alongside BJ Cariappa. Whether any or all of them will also be considered for the CWG as well is a question for later. At the moment, it’s sorted. Everybody has a job to do. And most likely, the first-team players will now go to the CWG under Graham Reid. That, though, is still not clear.
Travelling under Rupinder’s captaincy will be a team of promising rookies that will be harnessed by the skipper, Lakra and Sunil, along with the coaching staff. The only other member of the squad with notable experience is the 2016 Junior World Cup winner Simranjeet Singh, who was also part of the squad that won the Olympic bronze in Tokyo.
This will be the first tournament for Simranjeet after the Olympics, as he was recovering from a groin injury.
The Asia Cup is inconsequential for India from the point of being a qualifier for the World Cup. As host of the World Cup early next year, India have a automatic qualification for the prestigious tournament. The top four from the Asia Cup will go through as well.
Birendra Lakra. (Photo by Robertus Pudyanto/Getty Images)
“According to me, they should have sent the entire new talent to Asia Cup and the senior players (Rupinder, Lakra, Sunil) should have been taken to the Commonwealth Games, like the thought process (plan) was earlier,” said former India striker Jagbir Singh when contacted by TimesofIndia.com.
But with no Asian Games to play this year, as of now at least, the first team will need competitive matches before the World Cup, apart from featuring in the Pro League. That may necessitate sending a full-strength squad to the CWG.
“If the full side is going to CWG, then these retired players, unless they give an extraordinary performance at the Asian Games, the coach (Graham Reid) will think twice before taking them to CWG, because he has his combinations in place,” Jagbir opined.
While Sardar may remain in the scheme of things as someone to be groomed as coach, Rupinder, Lakra and Sunil may find themselves at the crossroads at the end of the Asia Cup and if overlooked for CWG.
They came back or were brought back for a purpose which has been, as if no at least, been defeated by the postponement of Asian Games.
Still, leading the national team will be an experience of pride for Rupinder.
“No one would have thought, not just Rupinder, no player could think of anything like this,” Jagbir further told TimesofIndia.com, talking about how Rupinder suddenly came back from retirement and will now lead the team in Indonesia for the Asia Cup. “He has been part of the team, one of the senior-most members.
“But for the first time so many (recently) retired players have been called back and now sending them as a mixture (for the Asia Cup), first time it has been done. I am also looking forward to this.”

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