After a gap of 16 years, India’s women’s hockey team returned to the Commonwealth Games podium, defeating New Zealand via a thrilling tie-breaker in the bronze-medal playoff in Birmingham on Sunday.
As she usually is, India captain and goalkeeper Savita Punia was the star for India in the shoot-out, saving two, forcing a New Zealand attacker to miss the target once and ensuring another attacker did not complete her attempt in the allotted eight seconds.
After winning the silver medal at the 2006 Melbourne CWG, India’s 2-1 win in the shootouts (1-1 after regulation time) made sure they did not return home empty-handed this time.
The tie-breaker followed after New Zealand equalised with just 18.5 seconds remaining in the match to level the score 1-1. However, unlike the semifinal where India lost to Australia in the shoot-outs, the team showed immense mental strength to fight back and post a win even after Sangita Kumari missed her initial attempt.
Earlier in the match, Salima Tete had put India ahead in the 29th minute. Her sneaky run at the far post and an opportunistic backhanded tap-in gave India the lead, which they fought hard to protect for the rest of the match.
The move that led to Tete’s goal was initiated from the right. However, Navneet Kaur’s initial shot was blocked by the New Zealand goalkeeper, the ball then fell to Sharmila Devi who was unmarked in front of an open goal, but she failed to connect but Tete made the run behind her to score from the melee.
It was Tete’s third goal of the tournament but by far the most important, given that hardly anything separated the two teams until then. New Zealand piled on the pressure in search of an equaliser and had a goal disallowed in the third quarter. India, however, never went defensive although they defended brilliantly.
Even with less than five minutes remaining in the final quarter, India refused to defend deep and continued to press high to keep New Zealand from accumulating numbers in their half. They played with pace and precision, never allowing their opponent a moment to breathe.
The only time they looked to alter the strategy was in the final two minutes when Lalremsiami was shown a yellow card for an infringement. Down to 10 players, New Zealand sensed an opportunity and earned a penalty corner with just 28.5 seconds left in the match. From the resulting drag-flick, New Zealand earned a penalty stroke after the ball hit Navneet’s foot in front of the goal.
Olivia Merry converted from the spot, forcing a shootout. For India, Sonika and Navneet found the target in the tie-breaker while Sangita and Neha Goyal missed their chances. New Zealand, though, missed all but one chance they took.
The players, most of them in tears, ran towards the ‘D’ and huddled over Savita after she made the final save. The bronze will come as a huge shot in the arm for the team, which was on an upswing following a fourth-place finish at the Tokyo Olympics a year ago but seemed to stagnate in the last few months, with a few underwhelming performances, especially at the World Cup.
The medal, however, will come as a reprieve, especially for some of the senior players and coach Janneke Schopmann.