July 4, 2015, was the day Indian women’s hockey finally stepped out of the men’s shadows and stood up to be counted. Qualifying for the Olympics for the first time ever, the women were feted as much for the enormity of their achievement as for the progress they had made in the international arena.
Almost a year on, and with less than three months to go for the big event, the girls seem to be struggling to come to terms with the actual scale of things. Since that day in Antwerp, when a single goal by Rani helped India pull ahead of a higher-ranked Japan to finish fifth and book a ticket to Rio, the team has scored just 20 goals in 17 games, including a fiver against lowly Scotland. India has yet to get past a team ranked above it, and the 4-0 series whitewash at the hands of Great Britain, that included a 7-0 thrashing, was the latest in a string of disappointing outings.
So how does the recent spate of losses affect the team, as it prepares for its maiden Olympics outing after qualifying on merit (the only other time India played at the Games was in Moscow in 1980, when women’s hockey was introduced as an invitational event)? Like so many others, is the team only going to make up the numbers?
“Definitely not. We had a big meeting in London after the series and the girls realise that they just weren’t good enough against Britain. But the good thing is that they are all disappointed with the way it happened and know they now have 90 days to change it and prove themselves,” chief coach Neil Hawgood said.
The Australian, who coached the team for two-and-a-half years before quitting in 2014, returned to take charge of the side in October last year. He is one of the few to earn the unwavering trust of his players. In fact, even though the team qualified under Mathias Ahrens, the girls emphasised that it was “Neil sir’s ways” that they continued to follow and that helped them punch above their weight.
“He has helped us become confident of our abilities. He allows us to play freely while sticking to the plan,” captain Ritu Rani has said, which has been backed by the rest of the team.
In London, the team did start well in the early games before losing steam towards the end. Hawgood, however, said that it was more about physical conditioning and consistency. “See, most of the top teams develop their physical ability over a four-year period to peak at the Olympics. For a regular Olympics team, the players have 10-12 years of development and then push hard to get to the next level. We have had about three years now and we can’t match 12 years’ development in three. What I saw was the team playing exceptionally well in patches,” he explained.
Hawgood had a point. The series began with a 0-2 loss to Britain’s ‘A’ team before India lost its first game against the main team 6-0 after conceding three goals in six minutes. It recovered to put up a good fight in the next two outings. Despite the defeats, the Indian defence held up for a major part of the games and Great Britain had difficulty finding the goals. But the last game was again one-sided, with India losing 7-0. There were periods when India had the upper hand but could not take advantage of it. Penalty corners were a concern with India earning few and wasting those that it did manage.
Injuries haven’t helped the side. The team to London was devoid of drag-flicker Jaspreet Kaur, who has been out for almost three months with a back injury and is only now slowly getting back to training. It also missed the experienced Sushila Chanu, nursing a knee injury, and her absence meant there was a big gap in the middle. Anuradha Devi, returning from a hamstring injury, was tentative and unable to go full tilt, and that left Rani, who only recently recovered from a shoulder injury, alone upfront.
“Also, we went with 18 players which, though two more than what is allowed at the Olympics, was still a limited pool. Britain, on the other hand, had its entire squad of 32 at its disposal and it is difficult to compete with that. We played five games in seven days against a side that had 6-7 fresh players in every game. That said, these were conditions similar to what they will get at Rio, so it was a big test,” Hawgood said.
Ritu agreed. “Each of us is working on improving both our own game and getting better as a team. We know we are left with little time and we want to make the most of it. There have been a few injuries to some of the girls and it makes a lot of difference, but we are learning from our mistakes. We worked on the niggles after the New Zealand tour (for the eight-nation Hawkes Bay Cup) and we will continue to learn from our mistakes on this tour as well,” she said.
Having played in the Games, Hawgood knows the Olympics is different from any other sporting event. Soon after the team qualified for Rio, he had sounded caution. “There are a lot of expectations but we have to be realistic. These girls know nothing about Olympics. It is just not another tournament, it’s a different world. They need to be prepared for it,” he had said a year ago. The Aussie reiterated those words now: “The London tour only reinforces the fact that qualifying for Olympics is just one step; the pressure it brings along is something else. Britain was bronze medallist in 2012 and has been at the Olympics regularly, so it knows what it takes to push to the next level. The Indian men realise that because they have been there; these girls haven’t.”The Indian team will now travel to Australia for a series against New Zealand and Japan, besides the host, playing four games in five days. It would also go to the US before the Olympics. All these teams (Britain, Japan, Australia and the US) are in India’s pool in the Olympics, and the matches against them will give the team a fair idea of what to expect in Rio.
Hawgood had the last word. “What this tour, and the one before that, has done is to bring home the reality of why we are ranked where we are at the moment (No. 13) and why those above us are ranked higher. We are no closer to selecting the final 16, but the tour did give some interesting insights into how certain players accept the responsibility of challenge and absorb the pressure of the big stage.
“We have interesting two months ahead,” he said before signing off.
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