Year of the Woman

India’s hockey pride: 2017 may well be the turning point for our women’s team

The team’s win against China in the Asia Cup has earned it a berth in the 2018 World Cup.   | Photo Credit: PTI

For as long back as one can remember, women in Indian sports have remained on the fringes regardless of the sport they have played. If it was a team sport like football or hockey, the spotlight slipped that much further away.

The year 2017 may well be the catalyst the Indian women’s hockey team needed to grab its share of the spotlight. It may not have been the best of starts for the team but the year ended with renewed hopes of Indian women’s hockey punching above its weight and knocking on the doors of the top rung.

If the humiliation of finishing last at the 2012 London Olympics was the trigger for the men’s team to get their house in order and begin the painful climb back to the top, an identical result for the women at Rio four years later, disappointing though it was, did not trigger the same outrage. Mainly because the women, having qualified for the mega event after 36 years, were always the outsiders and expected to finish at the bottom.

But for the girls themselves, it was a dream that had all too quickly turned into a deep, dark disappointment they wanted to shut out from their lives. 2017 began with a clean slate: Dutchmen Sjoerd Marijne and Eric Wonink were appointed as the chief coach and analytical coach, respectively, with a three-year mandate, till the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The women took time to adjust and the top-spot among the minnows at the Hockey World League (HWL) Round 2 was perhaps the ideal opportunity for both the players and Marijne to build a rapport.

“Being favourites is not familiar territory for these girls. I felt the girls were looking up to the other teams, which is really not necessary. They have to begin believing in themselves somewhere,” Marijne had said then.

The next step, the HWL Semifinals, was the real eye-opener and the Indians could only manage an eighth-place finish among 10 teams. Marijne was beginning to get a hang of the team, as were the girls of their coach, but as is wont in Indian hockey, change is the only constant.

When the women were touring Europe, their coach was transferred to the men’s team. In came Harendra Singh, the man who actually coveted that job after leading the junior men to the World Cup. Anywhere else in the world, it would be considered a promotion. Here, there were questions if this meant a demotion for the man, a ‘punishment posting’ of sorts. It also made the disparity between the men’s and women’s teams apparent.

Women first

Singh himself refuted any such allusions. “I did not hesitate even for a second. I don’t know how we look at it in India but in the rest of the world, women’s teams and coaches have a lot of importance. All the top coaches in the world have come up coaching women’s teams,” he said while taking charge.

On paper, it sounded logical. But it was a huge challenge for the coach who had never worked with women athletes before. “The one thing I had to work on was maintaining discipline without getting too abrasive. The level of focus and self-discipline these girls have is amazing, I have never had to remind them of any rule twice,” Singh said.

The Asia Cup was the first big challenge. A title triumph would assure the team of a ticket to the 2018 World Cup. Else, it would be left to the vagaries of an unpredictable qualification process that would not feel as deserving.

Attacking, aggressive and confident at the Asia Cup in Kakamigahara, Japan, a month later, Singh seemed to have already begun working his magic, pushing the women that extra bit harder in crunch situations. Despite his limited time with the team, Singh had set one goal for them: self-belief. Everything else would come later.

The girls stepped up. The self-belief that Marijne had wanted to inculcate was finally beginning to show in the team and the Dutchman was more thrilled with the women’s performance in Asia Cup than with his own men’s team.

With a packed 2018 on the radar, the women know they cannot sit back and relax. “2018 will be a very crucial year for our team. These are all big, important tournaments: the World Cup, the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games, which will be a ticket to the Olympics, so that is crucial,” says Rani Rampal, captain and key striker.

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Printable version | Jan 26, 2022 2:34:57 PM |

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