The last time an Indian hockey team — men’s or women’s — reached the final four of a World Cup was a few months before the Emergency. Sholay had not yet hit the theatres and Gerald Ford occupied the White House. That’s how long it has been since Indian hockey was among the elite in the world. The men’s team was on the podium in the first three editions, but since India were world champions at Kuala Lumpur in 1975, they have not hit those heights again.
On Thursday, the Indian women’s team has an opportunity to boldly go where no Indian side has gone for a very long time. They themselves were in that rarefied air at the inaugural World Cup in 1974. All they need to do is beat Ireland, the 16th-ranked team in the world, an eminently achievable task, even though they pipped the Indians by a solitary goal when they met in a group match last week at the Lee Valley Hockey and Tennis Centre.
Regardless of the result on Thursday, the Indian women’s hockey team has come a long way in the last few years, despite the powers-that-be often treating it as almost an afterthought. The relative lack of spotlight, compared to the men’s outfit, and the manner in which coaches are moved around only serve to strengthen that impression. The team didn’t even make it to the last World Cup four years ago after ending ninth in 2010, and when it made it to the Olympics in 2016, after a hiatus of 36 years, they finished 12th among as many teams, losing four of their five matches and drawing the other one.
Coach Sjoerd Marijne knows life from both sides of the fence, having been at the helm of the men’s team for a while, and understands how big a deal this run at the World Cup is for the girls.
“This is such a good moment for women in India to show that they can achieve something. We don’t get to play many matches in India. So, this win is a big one for India,” the Dutchman said.
The turnaround from two years ago is remarkable in itself. The team, coached by Australian Neil Hawgood, scored three goals while conceding 19 in Rio. While scoring goals was indeed a problem in the ongoing tournament as well — they managed just three in three group matches before pumping three past the outclassed Italians, the defence has seen a marked improvement with the Indian citadel breached just three times in four matches.
Those games included clashes against the No.2-ranked England and the No.7-ranked United States. Italy never had a genuine chance of scoring on Tuesday, and only managed a solitary penalty corner. Indian goalkepeer Savita Punia, who has been in tremendous form, for once, was not called upon too often.
“Early in the tournament, we didn’t do the one thing we needed to do — score goals. But we have found the net now and we can definitely push on with our journey. We do not see that journey ending tomorrow,” skipper Rani Rampal, in many ways the talisman of the side, said after the win over Italy.
But the story of India’s campaign thus far has to be the defensive organisation. While Savita has been the rock at the back, making some last-ditch saves when the opposition had a free shot at goal, the likes of Sunita Lakra, Deep Grace Ekka and Reena Khokhar have stepped up when called upon.
“What has changed in the last two years is the physical and mental aspect. Girls are getting more consistent and better in defending structure. It’s about belief. Many more things have improved but these are some of the things. That’s why the consistency is getting better and better. In the last year, we have played more matches where we had good results which gave them more self-confidence and everything starts with that,” Marijne told The Indian Express.
Certain technical adjustments seem to have made the difference.
“My assistant Erik (Wonink) and me have worked really hard on the defensive structure — small things like always keep low, stay in front, keep pressure on the ball. You need to have discipline and good defensive structure to win matches and we only conceded three goals so far, that’s the basics of our play. We always create chances and if we want to go further in the tournament, we really need to create more opportunities and I am confident we will do that.”
The Irish can hardly be termed pushovers, especially after they topped the group despite being the lowest-ranked of the teams. Their strengths seem to mirror those of India, whom they have beaten in their last two meetings. In their three matches so far, they scored four goals and conceded two. Deirdre Duke found the target twice against the Americans via field goals while their other two successes came via penalty corners. Despite having the lion’s share of possession, circle penetrations and shots on goal, India could not find a way past Irish goalkeeper Ayeisha McFerran.
India may have enjoyed the luck of the draw, scraping through to the knockouts on goal difference and facing the two lowest-ranked teams in the competition to make it to the last four, but judging by the manner in which they breezed past Italy, India should feel good about themselves as they get a shot at history. “We are improving. This is the first time we played consistent. The defensive structure was good. If we are more calm, we will score more goals,” Marijne feels.
“The most crucial part tomorrow will be finishing. We created a lot of chances – our circle penetrations and PCs – so that was not the problem – but it’s about converting them. Ireland came just six times in our circle and they had three PCs, I think, and they scored one. So their conversion was high. I don’t mind making less circle penetrations but have a high conversion rate.”
While Rani just said: “We will fight every second, for every ball.”
India’s 43-year wait
# No Indian team – men or women – has reached the semifinal since 1975, when Ajitpal Singh-led side became the world champions. Since then, the men’s best performance has been a fifth-place finish in 1982 and 1994.
# The women last played in a last-four encounter in 1974, when they lost 2-0 to West Germany in the inaugural edition. They haven’t repeated that performance since. In fact the decline has been so steep that they couldn’t even qualify for the 2014 World Cup in The Hague.
# India’s quarterfinals opponents Ireland are playing their first World Cup in 16 years. They made their last appearance in 2002 and lost all seven matches they played – scoring four and conceding 22 goals in the process.
# The Irish do not have a rich history in hockey. In fact, their players pay to play for their national team. According to Irish Times, international women players are asked to pay 550 euros a year to raise funds for the national team programme as the federation does not get enough funding from the government. Stacked against all odds, the second-lowest ranked team (16) in the World Cup have surprised everyone with some really stubborn performances, eventually topping the pool that comprised heavyweights like England and USA.
# 03 – Number of goals India have conceded in the World Cup so far, which is the second-lowest. At the Rio Olympics, the team had conceded 19 goals in five matches, to finish at the bottom of the 12-team competition.
Quarterfinal: India vs Ireland; Live on Star Sports 2, 10.30pm