Sardar to lead India in 6 Nation tourney; Lakra returns

India takes on Germany in the opener on June 27.

Sardar Singh was rested for the FIH Champions Trophy.   -  R. Ragu

Birendra Lakra was seriously injured during the Hockey India League in February this year and had to undergo urgent knee surgery in the first week of March.   -  Getty Images

Having undergone surgery and in a race against time to return to full fitness ahead of the Rio Olympics, defender Birendra Lakra has made a return to the national team for the upcoming 6 Nations' Invitational Tournament to be played in Valencia, Spain, from June 27-July 3. The tournament will also see the return of regular skipper Sardar Singh, who was rested from India’s silver medal winning Champions Trophy campaign.

The 20-member squad for the event was announced on Monday with drag-flicker Rupinderpal Singh and striker Ramandeep Singh also returning to action after being rested for the recent Champions Trophy.

Sixteen of the 18 players that featured in that tournament have been retained. Young striker Mandeep Singh and midfielder Pradeep Mor have returned home as coach Roelant Oltmans continues to try and test all the players from the core group in competition before finalising the 16 for Rio.

Lakra was seriously injured during the Hockey India League in February this year and had to undergo urgent knee surgery in the first week of March. Since then, he had been in rehabilitation at the SAI centre, Bangalore, under the supervision of physio Shrikant Iyengar. His match fitness would be crucial to Oltmans' final plans for Rio.

“He has improved a lot and is now training properly. In fact, the recovery has been a lot faster than what we had expected and we are happy at the rate of his progress. The six-nation event will help better in assessing his fitness,” captain Sardar Singh, who had been training with Lakra in Bangalore, told Sportstar.

“After winning our first medal at the prestigious Champions Trophy tournament over the weekend, we are confident to deliver our best at the 6 Nations' tournament as well. All these matches are stepping stones towards the ultimate goal — Rio Olympics 2016,” said Sardar.

“The brilliant display of tactical hockey during Champions Trophy by the squad has positively elevated are Olympic medal-winning hopes. Three of the teams we face in Valencia are in our Pool at the Olympic Games, so that will help us assess and analyse our tactics better too,” he added.

Young defender Surender Kumar has been rewarded for his impressive performance during the Champions Trophy with an extended stay with the national side. The tournament, played on a round-robin format also features Argentina, Germany, New Zealand, Ireland and hosts Spain – all teams that have qualified for the Olympics. Besides Olympic champion Germany who was also present at the Champions Trophy, Ireland and Argentina are also in the same pool as India at Rio, giving the team valuable experience against its opponents.

“I am really impressed by the boys with their recent performances, especially at the Champions Trophy. They are implementing the learnings of the training well into action at the tournaments. I hope we keep up the spirit and continue to deliver performances like this,” Oltmans said.

“The key to the tournament will be to use it almost as a host of friendlies, before the Games. We will try to maximise on our squad rotations, tactical experiments and analyse our opponents there.

“Most teams, will come with what resembles their full strength squad and so it will give us a good indication of our strengths and weaknesses, prior to Rio.”

India takes on Germany in the opener on June 27.

Squad:

Goalkeepers: P. R. Sreejesh and Vikas Dahiya.

Defenders: Rupinderpal Singh, V. R. Raghunath, Kothajit Singh, Surender Kumar, Harmanpreet Singh and Birendra Lakra.

Midfielders: Danish Mujtaba, Chinglensana Singh Manpreet Singh, Sardar Singh (capt.), S. K. Uthappa, Devindar, Sunil Walmiki and Harjeet Singh.

Forwards: Talwinder Singh, S. V. Sunil, Akashdeep Singh, Ramandeep Singh and Nikkin Thimmaiah.