There was not much fanfare when the women’s hockey team departed for the Asia Cup. Most people hardly took notice when the girls left Indian shores. Indian women’s teams have been regularly going for such tournaments, and returning as also-rans. Finishing second or third was considered a major achievement. Almost the same bunch of players had finished 8th among 10 teams in the Hockey World League Semi-Finals in Johannesburg less than four months ago. A recent change in head coach also prompted many to lower their expectations.
But the large crowd, garlands and dhols at the airport point to the fact that unexpected victories are the sweetest. The girls, who are used to returning home almost incognito, were clearly basking in their new-found stardom. Winning the Asia Cup — ahead of higher-ranked China, Japan and Korea — and qualifying for next year’s World Cup in London on merit is certainly a job well done. The win also takes India into the top 10 of the world rankings.
A lot of it has to do with the man who stepped into the breach. Harendra Singh is known for delivering results in whatever assignment is given to him. He has already guided the India to a junior World Cup title, and has also tasted success in the Hockey India League. But by his own admission, the Air India man had hardly followed women’s hockey till a few months ago. That didn’t prevent Harendra from turning the Indian team from brave losers to title winners in less than a month. He seems to have worked on the mental aspects of the game and made the girls fitter. Also, his aim at getting results, rather than just playing well, has helped the girls brush up on the finer tactical points of the game in order to achieve the desired goal.
“Winning is a habit. I told the girls that we will not go to any tournament to merely participate. I want a medal from every tournament,” Harendra said. “I wanted the team to go to the World Cup by right, not because someone had vacated a spot for us.”
Merely the arrival of Harendra seemed to have boosted the confidence of the girls.
“He has won the World Cup with the junior men. That gave us the confidence that we have a world-beating coach with us,” skipper Rani Rampal said. “He has changed our mindset and improved our basic skills in the little time we had before the tournament. On the tactical side too, we worked a lot on penalty corner conversion and defence.”
When the previous women’s coach Sjoerd Marijne was ‘transferred’ to the men’s team, it showed that there was a clear hierarchy in place as far as Hockey India was concerned. High Performance director David John had clearly said that moving from the junior men’s team to the senior women was a ‘promotion’ for Harendra, and if he delivered results, he could be in for another one — to the senior men’s team. But whatever he achieves with the women’s team in the time to come, the federation will do well to keep the next ‘promotion’ on hold as almost by serendipity, they have arrived at a fruitful partnership. Marijne expectedly won the Asia Cup with the men’s team, but Harendra did it against the odds.
He also had a special mantra to keep the players calm in the high-pressure arena of a shootout in the final against China.
“I told the players that I am not looking for five conversions, just three, because I was confident that our goalkeeper Savita would make two saves
For Hockey India, the two victories have come as a big relief. “Our decision to appoint Harendra as the women’s coach has been vindicated. We had been building towards improving our results, and winning the Asia Cup ahead of three better-ranked sides takes the cake. It is good that both coaches have had success in the beginning of their tenure,” Hockey India’s high performance director David John told The Indian Express, adding that Harendra was likely to stay women’s coach till the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
“We are fortunate to have a smooth transition. We want all our teams to play a similar style — an Indian style. We are targeting a medal at the Commonwealth Games and a top-8 finish in the World Cup.”
With the World Cup, Asian Games and Commonwealth Games lined up next year, Harendra is aware of the significance of the next 12 months for Indian women’s hockey.
“The year 2018 could be a change year for Indian women’s hockey. It is up to the girls how high they want to go,” he said.
The team has no tournaments lined up for the next few months. After a three-week break, they will be back at a camp and have a preparatory tour to South Africa in February ahead of the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia.