SAVITA Punia will never forget the last quarter of India’s match against Japan for the fifth place at last week’s Hockey World League semifinals. India had a 1-0 lead but it was increasingly tenuous in the face of Japan’s relentless attack.
The Japanese team had six clear chances at the Indian goal, including five penalty corners. In the middle of the mayhem, goalkeeper Punia stood steady as a rock. She blunted each and every attack, ensuring India’s lead remained intact.
The win at Antwerp secured a fifth place finish for India and brought the side one step closer to qualification for the Rio Olympics. If they do qualify, it would be for the first time since the 1980 Games at Moscow.
The Olympics were unlikely to have been on Punia’s mind though in the desperate final 15 minutes. As Japan shaped to take one drag flick after the other, She was trying to remember the numbers and the signs which she had discussed with coach CR Kumar.
“They made one drag flick and three slap shots and we had discussed it earlier. Observing their body language was the key. I knew that their number 2 (Shiho Sakai) will try to drag-flick and number 13 (Shihori Oikawa) would hit and number 17 (Hazuki Nagai) makes slap shots,” said 24-year-old Punia on Monday after the team’s arrival from Belgium.
While she may have had a starring role in one of Indian women’s hockey’s finest moments, Punia had a rather reluctant initiation to the sport. Growing up in Jodhka village near Sirsa in Haryana, Punia only started playing the sport on the insistence of her grandfather Mahinder Singh. She soon joined the SAI Centre in Hisar where coach Sunder Singh Kharab got her to wear the goal keeping gloves. The youngster moved from strength to strength and made her way to the Indian camp in 2007.
But while success came consistently, Punia wasn’t completely enthused about the effort she had to put in. The then 17-year-old player would dread picking up the cumbersome goalie kit in trains and buses when she traveled to state and national — level tournaments. “Initially, I did not like playing. It is very hot in Haryana and as goalkeeper my kit bag was the heaviest in the team,” she said.
But Punia stuck to her task. “I maintained a diary and I would write daily that I have to play at the national and international level. Later when I made it to the national camp in 2007, talks with Mamta Kharab didi, Surender Kaur didi and Saba Anjum didi also helped me,” shares Punia.
Punia’s effort wasn’t a one-off showing. She had earlier starred in India’s bronze medal effort in Junior Asia Cup in 2009. In the Eighth Women’s Asia Cup held in Malaysia in 2013, Punia made two crucial saves in the penalty shoot-out to hand the team bronze medal.
The Haryana goalie, who has now featured in over 100 international games, proved her worth in similar fashion once again at the World Hockey League semi-finals when she made two saves in the penalty shootout against Italy.
Punia says her key to success is simply to watch the ball. “Sometimes, in the match when the forwards are with the ball in opposition half, I would think about penalty shoot-out strategies. It’s all about timing and adaption according to the forward skills. The eyes should be on the ball and that’s what I have been following all these years,” shared Punia, who was promised a job by the Haryana government in 2013 but is still without a job.
Punia though isn’t shy of learning and says she has been offered tips by Indian men’s goalkeeper Sreejesh.
“Sreejesh sir has been a support and would tell me that goalie’s left down is the weakest point. He told me that the emphasis should be on standing for as much as possible and to punch the ball and clear the ball quickly,” says Punia.
But while she looks up to her male counterpart, former India hockey goalie Baljit Singh Dhadwal, believes that she is performing at least at the level of the latter. ” Her role and stature is the same as Sreejesh in present Indian team. She is very aggressive technically and she never hesitates to thwart any forward’s advances. She makes clear moves and is clear in her mind. Her strength has been to adapt and to observe and to clear the ball quickly with less rebound,’ says Dhadwal.