When Ritu Rani converted a penalty corner to give India the lead against Belarus in the second game of the five-match Test series earlier this month, a wave of emotions rushed through her. It was her first competitive game for the national team eight months after she was unceremoniously dropped. “The feeling was that I’m back,” she says.
Back in July last year, the 25-year-old was in Bangalore was training with the Indian squad just days before the team for the Olympics was to be announced.
For the first time in 36 years, an Indian women’s team was to play at the elite quadrennial event, and Rani had captained the side that achieved that feat. But when then coach Neil Hawgood announced his 16-member team, Rani wasn’t a part of it.
“I’d rather not talk about what happened then, because I want to forget about it myself,” she says, almost pleading not to be reminded. The management offered no explanation as to why she was dropped but it was reported at the time that it was because of a loss in form and charges of ‘indiscipline’ – she allegedly left camp to get engaged to Punjabi singer Harsh Sharma. Yet her dismissal brought an end to her ‘dream’ of playing at the Olympics.
“My seniors from the 2012 batch congratulated me. They said it (Olympic qualification) didn’t happen for them, but at least I would get to go. It was a dream. Who cheez bahut paas aagaya, aur phir duur chalagaya,” she says. Her family in Shahbad, Haryana, too, had celebrated when the women’s team secured qualification. Her parents distributed sweets in the entire neighborhood and hosted a party. “Maybe going to Rio just wasn’t in my destiny,” Rani laments.
Dejected, she swore never to play the game again. So while the chosen 16 prepared for Rio, she prepared for her wedding. She made a point to busy herself in it to make sure she had no time to watch any of the team’s matches. “I wanted to keep away from it because I didn’t want to bring it back into my mind and upset myself. I wanted to move on,” she says. A month after the team returned — after finishing last in the group — she declined a call up to the camp by announcing her international retirement at just 24.
Life had changed for her. Suddenly, she had time to herself. “I’d go and enjoy shopping. It’s not something I could do too frequently in camp,” she quips. “It was a bit of a break. But once things cooled over, I started noticing something missing.”
Rani was coaxed to return by her mother-in-law, a hockey coach at National Institute of Sport (NIS) in Patiala, and husband, a former player himself. It worked. “I realised that I loved playing. Uske bina mann bhi nahi lagta. Uske elava bhi kya hai?”
Coincidentally, around the same time she got a call from former India, and current Austria, coach Cedric D’Souza, who invited her to train and play for a few weeks at Vienna-based club SV Arminen.
“I had barely retired, and I got this platform to play in. It was just for a few weeks, but in India girls don’t really get many domestic tournaments anyway,” says Rani, who became the first Indian woman’s player to play abroad. “There I realised I wanted to keep playing. I’m still young and have plenty of years left. I haven’t even reached my peak yet.” She joined her mother-in-law’s training sessions — even playing practice matches with the junior girls in Patiala.
The diet changed, so did her fitness regimen as she got back to the gym. She continued the routine, and even competed at the prestigious Surjeet Tournament in Jalandhar till she finally made her way back into the Indian team and was reinstated as the captain.
She remembers the junior players in the team fondly asking ‘didi’ about her wedding when she returned. In turn Rani resumed her role of guiding her peers. Sometimes she jokes with them, “Olympics chale gayi, abhi bhi wohi galti kar rahi hai?” Rani’s first assignment with the team is next month’s World Hockey League Round 2, a crucial tournament as they hope to qualify for next year’s World Cup. The clean sweep of Belarus — where Rani scored four goals in four matches — was a confidence booster for the team and for the former captain.