Back in 2003, when a young Savita Punia joined the Haryana government’s hockey nursery at Sirsa under coach Sunder Singh Kharab, she would often ferry her goalkeeper’s kit on Haryana Roadways buses from her village Jodhka. She would often complain to her father about bus conductors touching her kit with their feet or not letting her board due to the two kits.
On Monday, the 30-year-old thwarted every Australian attack to help India register a 1-0 win and reach the semifinals of the Tokyo Olympics. In the final minutes of the game, Australia got two penalty corners but Savita ensured to keep a clean sheet. As she lay on the ground to push the ball away from the Aussie players, the commentators said: “She has made the most important save for Indian hockey.”
Father Mahinder Singh Punia remembers Savita’s early days.
“Unlike other players, Savita had to carry an extra bag for the goalkeeping kit during her travel from our village to the hockey nursery on local buses. A lot of times, the conductors would ask her to keep the bags aside and move the bag with their feet. Sometimes, they wouldn’t let her board due to the big bags. Sometimes, she would cry but that was only because the conductors kicked her bag aside, which was not acceptable to her,” Mahinder told The Indian Express.
With her father working as a pharmacist, a young Savita’s interest in hockey would grow as her grandfather Ranjit Singh Punia, a farmer, would listen to the radio commentary of hockey matches and take her along to watch local games. Mahinder would take Savita to the hockey nursery at nearby Sirsa in 2003, where coach Kharab was posted as coach. While Savita initially wanted to be a forward or midfielder, according to her grandfather’s wishes, Kharab insisted on grooming her as a goalkeeper.
“I still remember Savita told her father and me that she wanted to be a midfielder or forward. But when I saw her training and made her undergo our drills and tests, I was impressed by her quick reaction time and height. So I suggested to her father to let her become a goalkeeper,” Kharab recalls.
With the nursery having only two kits for the already-chosen goalkeepers, Kharab would request Mahinder to buy Savita a hockey kit of her own. “While we were a bit sceptical of her becoming a goalkeeper, I spent Rs 17,000 to get her a new hockey kit from Sirsa. She would always guard her kit and take extra care of it. She would always remain in the hostel and would visit home only in case of an emergency. Somehow, it made me believe that she will make us proud one day,” Mahinder says.
While coach Kharab would train Savita from 2003 to 2007, which also saw him being shifted to Hisar where he took Savita along and got her to train before she was selected for the Sports Authority of India centre there. The youngster would play for the Haryana junior teams and often compete for a spot along with players from Shahbad, a town famous for producing more than 10 international players including current India skipper Rani. Savita would soon impress the national selectors and would make it to the junior Indian team in 2007 before making her senior debut in 2008.
“As a goalkeeper, her footwork and arm and leg position were very good even in her junior days and she would also make sure to spend a lot of time with the team’s forwards and midfielders to understand their thinking. Be it summer or winter, she was always ready for training in the goal-keeping kit. She had a lot of patience and it helped her. Once at a tournament in Delhi, Haryana’s two teams – one from Shahbad and another from Hisar – played the final and even though Hisar lost, former India player and coach MK Kaushik and Amrit Bose forwarded her name to be included in the junior Indian team camp,” remembers Kharab.
Against Australia in Monday’s quarterfinal, Savita made a number of saves. She helped India win the Asia Cup in 2017, where she was declared the best goalkeeper, and the silver medal at the 2018 Asian Games.
Kharab saw Monday’s match noting down points for Savita. “Today, she was always in the line of the ball and made some direct saves too. Even though Australia did not have their experienced penalty corner specialists, she made sure that India survived the last quarter. Earlier in the tournament, she once did not follow the line of the ball and let a goal in. She had learnt from such mistakes and hopefully, in the semis too, she will be like a wall.”
Coach Azad Singh Malik, who has seen Savita’s rise through the Haryana junior teams, was watching too. “Her biggest strength has been her patience and she does not get puzzled by the attacks. She has a clear mind and keeps seeking defenders’ inputs too about the opposition forward line or penalty corner moves,” says Malik.
As for Savita’s mother Leelavati Punia, she knows what Savita will do with her goalkeeping kit once she returns. “Medal or no medal, she always makes sure that she giver her old goal-keeping kit to needy players in our village or at Sirsa. Hopefully, she returns with a medal from the Olympics and many more Savitas will be inspired,” says Leelavati.