Eliza Nelson: The Indian team is focussed, very skilful

Thirty-six years after the Moscow Olympics in 1980, India is back among the elite in women’s hockey. The Rio qualification has resulted in a lot of discussion on the net among the players of the women's squad that finished fourth in the 1980 Olympics. Eliza Nelson, who was a member of that team, and under whose captaincy India won the gold medal in the 1982 Asian Games in New Delhi, talks to Sportstar about the women's team's chances in Rio.

Eliza Nelson was a key link in the forwardline in the women's squad that finished fourth in the 1980 Olympics in Moscow.   -  Vivek Bendre

The Indian women's hockey team, captained by Ritu Rani, qualified for the 2016 Rio Olympics after finishing fifth in the 2015 Hockey World League in Belgium. Thirty-six years after the Moscow Olympics in 1980, India is back among the elite in women's hockey. And the Rio qualification has resulted in a lot of discussion on the net among the players of the women's squad that finished fourth in the 1980 Olympics.

Padmashree Eliza Nelson, a key link in the forwardline then and a member of the WhatsApp group named ‘Moscow 1980 Hockey’ explores the reasons behind India's qualification for the Rio Games.

Excerpts from a chat with the Senior Sports Officer, Central Railway, under whose captaincy India won the gold medal in the 1982 Asian Games in New Delhi:

Question: Why did it take 36 years for the Indian women to qualify for the Olympics again?

Answer: Earlier we had NIS-qualified coaches in charge of the national squad; now we have a foreign coach (Australian Neil Hawgood is the current coach of the women's team), who is up-to-date with everything. They (foreign coaches) know the latest rules and techniques, and are in touch with the latest methods. We benefited from having a foreign coach, assisted by C. R. Kumar, who is well acquainted with the latest techniques after a stint in Malaysia. Helen Mary, an ex-international, is the goalkeeping coach.

Can you describe the main qualities of the current Indian women's team?

The players are totally focused and superior in their stick-and-ball skill. They are getting so much exposure, playing a tournament every month. The only problem I see here is a possible burnout. India fields one women’s team for all tournaments, whether it is a Four-Nation tournament, Asian Games or Commonwealth Games. We feel great winning small tournaments, using the same group of players. Other top hockey-playing nations have one main team for the major event and send experimental sides for lesser tournaments.

Hockey India felicitated the women’s squad for qualifying for the Olympics after 36 years…

Qualification was difficult. The team did not know till the last match whether they would make it. Felicitating them was a good gesture by the federation. I believe each player was given Rs. one lakh.

Do you sense any excitement in them for the upcoming Games?

They were extremely happy and deservedly so. In fact, all of us from the 1980 (Moscow) team were overjoyed that after 36 years, Indian women will be playing in the Olympics Games again. The link continues. We do have a Whatsapp group (Moscow 1980 Hockey) and chat every day, including Rupa Saini (our captain).

The 1980 team to Moscow finished fourth, it then came together again in the 1982 Asian Games and won the gold. Do you feel the players sent to Moscow peaked two years later in Delhi?

You have to peak for a tournament, that is how a coach works out the team schedule. We had a very successful tour of Japan prior to the 1982 Asian Games. The same group remained together for almost three years, understood one another. We lived like a family, did everything together.

Balkishen Singh, our coach for the Asian Games, was very strict about players’ movements away from matches. We did not take part in the Opening Ceremony in Delhi and were not permitted to go and watch the men’s matches. I liked the way he spoke to the players; he read the game vey well and he talking to the team would make a difference in our approach. He was a coach to be respected.

Was Moscow Olympics a different experience in comparison?

The team was good enough to win an Olympic medal, but for mismanagement. Satinder Walia trained us at the camp and did the hard work, but Kartar Singh was sent to Moscow as coach. If Walia was with the squad in any capacity, we would have returned with a medal.Our team was so disorganised that we ended up waiting from morning to midnight for the team bus and at the training ground. Everything there at the Olympics moves with clockwork precision. We reached the busstop when the time slot was not ours. We reached the stadium at a time when the training slot was not ours, so we waited for our turn. Then we overdid the training part on astroturf in the first week, so by the time the competition began, the players were tired becaue of waiting and over-training.

What type of hockey does the current team play under Hawgood?

The Indian women probables for Rio have been together for seven to 10 months, and the same team has been going for all tournaments. The continuity will be helpful if they can remain injury free. We can expect fast, clean hockey and good movements. That is what I learnt from chatting with the Indian Railways players in the camp (19 out of 24 Olympics probables are from Railways). Training sessions are shorter and the focus is on moves. I feel they need to work on their speed.

Do you feel women’s hockey can be a career option for youngsters?

Indian Railways is offering jobs to women hockey players. Haryana government offers employment. Players in the national camp belong to Manipur, Orissa and Bihar. Life is tough, so youngsters have to step out and make a living on their own. A career in sport comes in handy. Cities such as Mumbai have many distractions to keep kids away from hockey.

The London Olympics saw Saina Nehwal and Mary Kom winning medals. Any thoughts on India's medals prospects in Rio?

Ayonika Paul, Heena Sidhu in shooting are talented. Our women’s badminton doubles pair of Ashwini Ponnappa and Jwaal Gutta should perform and so will Lalita Babar in athletics. I hope they come up with career-best performances in Rio. If that is good enough for a medal, so be it.