There was a time, in the not too distant past, when hockey in the country largely pertained to the men’s game. The women’s team qualified for the 2016 Olympics, after a gap of 36 years, and finished 12th among as many teams, four years after the men had suffered the same ignominy.
Two years, though, is a long time in sport and the women’s team that will take the field at the World Cup starting in London on Saturday will be eyeing a much higher finish in their return to the elite competition after eight years. A largely young group of players and the efforts of successive coaches – both Indian and foreign – has taken a team that was an also-ran even at the continental level to the stature of Asian champions.
But more things change, the more they remain the same. A foreign coach found incapable of handling the men’s team was shunted back to the women’s side and told to deliver results, beginning with the World Cup which is followed immediately by the Asian Games in Indonesia. Dutchman Sjoerd Marijne knows the spotlight will be on him after he was removed as men’s team coach by what could only be described as player power.
Thankfully, the women players reconcile with whoever is in charge – be it CR Kumar, Neil Hawgood, Harendra Singh or Marijne. That is probably the reason the team has made rapid progress over the last few years, while the story of the men’s outfit has been about two steps forward and one step back. The 10th-ranked team in the world, which has a distinctly youthful look, opens its campaign in Pool B at the Lee Valley Hockey and Tennis Centre on Saturday against England, who are the Olympic champions from two years ago when they were playing as Great Britain. Matches against the 16-ranked Ireland and 7th-ranked United States follow in the tournament where avoiding the wooden spoon in the pool will ensure the team has a chance of advancing to the quarterfinals.
Skipper Rani Rampal is one of only two players who has previous experience of playing in a World Cup. Eight years ago at Rosario, Argentina, the Shahbad girl caught the eye as a 16-year-old by scoring seven goals as India finished ninth. She is now a veteran with 134 goals in 212 internationals, and feels the high expectations on the home team could work in favour of the Indians.
“I think England have more pressure than us so we want to enjoy the game,” says Rani. “For three weeks, a sports psychologist worked with us in Bangalore and that has helped us to believe in ourselves.” For the record, India came from behind to beat England at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, before suffering a comprehensive defeat in the bronze medal playoff. The head coach at that time was Harendra, who also guided the team to the Asia Cup title and the current world ranking is India’s highest. He has since moved on to take charge of the men’s team.
“Yes they will have the home ground advantage but we are not new to playing in front of big crowds. We have done well against England before and we will carry the confidence of doing well in our recent tournaments including the CWG where we had tasted victory against England in the Group Stage in Gold Coast,” adds Rani.
This time too, the skipper will carry the lion’s share of responsibility for finding goals, as apart from Vandana Katariya, the other forwards are low on experience at the top level. Penalty corners are a major source of goals, although not as much as in the men’s game. It has not been India’s traditional strength, but coach Marijne believes things could be different this time. “I like to look at the positives we have and having a drag-flicker like Gurjit Kaur who is one of the best in the world is also an advantage we have,” he said.
In the absence of former skipper Ritu Rani, the midfield seems to lack experience but the defence manned by the likes of deep Grace Ekka and Deepika Thakur bears a solid look. Vice-captain Savita will be the one responsible for protecting the Indian goal.
The performance and results in London and the Asian Games that follow will be crucial for Marijne’s future as well after being ousted from the men’s team. After his predecessor, and successor, Harendra took the team to the next level, the Dutchman should be looking for a top-six finish among the best team in the world.
That would put the team in the right frame of mind going into the Asian Games. Anything outside the top eight will be a disappointment. With continental rivals China, Japan and Korea also in the fray at the World Cup, India would like to be the first among equals. If any of the three teams finish above India, it would be construed as a step backwards.
Squad: Goalkeepers: Savita (vice-captain), Rajani Etimarpu; Defenders: Sunita Lakra, Deep Grace Ekka, Deepika, Gurjit Kaur, Reena Khokhar; Midfielders: Namita Toppo, Lilima Minz, Monika, Neha Goyal, Navjot Kaur, Nikki Pradhan; Forwards: Rani Rampal (c), Vandana Katariya, Navneet Kaur, Lalremsiami, Udita.