Rani Rampal leaned on the fence, closed her eyes and, as the first droplets of rain fell on her face, allowed herself a wide grin.
Soaking in the freshly minted feeling of being an Olympic semifinalist, the India captain was in a daze. She walked from the pitch towards the dressing room through a narrow, barricaded path, stopped for a second, pumped her arms and shouted: “Yaaay!’ Then, she hopped onto a cart and embraced her coach Sjoerd Marijne. “Is this real?” they asked each other.
It didn’t feel real. Not to Rani. Not to Marijne. Not to the few hundred people inside the Oi Hockey Stadium or the billion back home. But as the Tricolour went up on the graffiti wall inside the stadium, below Argentina’s Albiceleste, it couldn’t have been more real.
#IND’s Savita literally gave it her all and then some more defending 2/2 field goal attempts by #AUS to keep her clean sheet intact. 🙌🥅#Tokyo2020 | #UnitedByEmotion | #StrongerTogether | #Hockey | #BestOfTokyo pic.twitter.com/FFUo0KcBd1
— #Tokyo2020 for India (@Tokyo2020hi) August 2, 2021
The Indian women’s hockey team had defeated World No. 3 and former gold medallists Australia 1-0 in one of the greatest upsets of all time to gatecrash into the semifinals of the Olympic Games — for the first time ever.
The team that had finished 12th out of 12 teams at the Rio Olympics five years ago, last played a competitive match in October 2019, saw half-a-dozen players getting infected with Covid in the second wave, and landed in Tokyo under-prepared to get spanked in their first three matches, had somehow turned the tables.
It was almost a seminal moment for Indian hockey, which has been a cash cow for the rest of the world but has itself underachieved for decades together. After 41 years of nothing, the women and men’s Indian hockey teams have placed themselves within touching distance of an Olympic medal with incredible wins on back-to-back days, within 24 hours of each other.
But while the men, who take on world champions and gold favourites Belgium on Tuesday (7 am IST), were primed to reach this stage after years of investment and exposure, the women have for long been an afterthought for many.
Just raw, sheer emotions. 🥺❤️
— #Tokyo2020 for India (@Tokyo2020hi) August 2, 2021
Indeed, there are underdog stories, and then there’s the story of this women’s hockey team. Each player has overcome seemingly insurmountable odds to reach this far: prejudice, poverty and patriarchy. Each player has been driven by nothing else but passion. “This is the real ‘Chak De!’ moment,” Marijne, the Dutchman in charge of the team, said.
As for the coach, who has displayed strong will and a forensic ability to work the smallest of details, taking the team this far is an admirable achievement after being shuffled around within the system.
Marijne was brought to India as women’s coach in early 2017, and then transferred to the men’s team before being brought back to his original post. For one, he has transformed the team’s fitness levels along with South African physiotherapist Wayne Lombard. Then, during the lockdown, he combined with former USA coach Janneke Schopman, whose team India had defeated to qualify for the Olympics, to finetune tactics and technique.
All those tiny steps, many taken over four-and-a-half years, finally came to fruition on a sultry morning that sucked every ounce of energy. India’s women out-ran, out-thought and out-played Australia — a feat that was beyond belief even hours after that final second of play.
Belief, however, was what carried the team through. “We know Australia don’t like playing us,” goalkeeper Savita Punia, who pulled off crucial saves, said. “They gave us the space to play our game and we executed our plan perfectly. I’m so, so proud of this team.”
This was as good a team performance as they come. India got the match-winner in the 22nd minute from a penalty corner that drag-flicker Gurjit Kaur converted. They then defended well but were never defensive in approach.
Whenever they held possession, the Indians darted forward at breakneck speed with seamless, telegraphed passing that was once Australia’s hallmark. And every time they were pushed deep in their own half, they showed uncharacteristic calmness and a high level of technical skill to keep the Australians at bay even when they went all out in the final stage.
In a way, India had out-Aussied Australia. This was acknowledged by a tiny bunch of Australians in the stands, whose frustration at their team’s failure turned to admiration for Rani and her teammates as the minutes ticked by.
When the hooter sounded, the Indian players, overcome by emotions, looked at each other in bewilderment, unable to grasp the magnitude of the situation. They huddled at the centre of the pitch, posed for a selfie, punched the air and jumped in joy. There wasn’t a dry eye — even the sky, cloudless and bright until then, opened up.
Finally, when they exited the pitch after almost 30 minutes of impromptu celebrations, Salima Tete and Lalremsiami, the two young stars who dazzled Australian defenders with their pace, hugged each other tightly, fought back tears and broke into a loud giggle. “Can you believe it!” Siami yelled. Few could.