India ready for HWL semis, says Savita Punia

The India goalkeeper attributes a positive change in attitude among her team members to the new coach Sjoerd Marijne.

Savita Punia was the ‘Goalkeeper of the Tournament’ at Hockey World League Round Two.   -  Shreedutta Chidananda

There is no understating Savita Punia's role in India's Hockey World League (HWL) Round Two victory in Canada last month. In the final, she saved the first two attempts in the penalty shoot-out, from Chile's Kim Jacob and Josefa Villalabeitia, and was later declared 'Goalkeeper of the Tournament'.

Savita, though, is rather modest about her own feats. “We were involved in two shootouts (the other against Uruguay), so that is why I got the award,” she says. “For two months before going to Canada, we practised shootouts almost every day. It helped both our attackers and our goalkeepers. Previously, we would train very little for the shootout, maybe once a month or so. After practice, we would just round up a couple of players and train. But this time, we trained well. And it showed.”

There is a new-found confidence in the team, according to Savita, credit for which she gives India's new coach, Sjoerd Marijne. “On the field, he doesn't let us take it easy. Off the field, he keeps us relaxed. Earlier, there was pressure from the coaches. Today, we are comfortable and it shows on the field. Marijne was coach of the World's No. 1 team. He trains us with those standards in mind. Whenever someone gets lazy in training, he stops us right there. He says: 'You're not as bad the rankings suggest. When I say you're a good player, you're a good player.'”

Self-belief was not particularly high, though, when Marijne was appointed in February. “After the Olympics last year (where India failed to win a single game), our confidence took a hit," says Savita. "We won the Asian Champions Trophy, but we couldn't play our game. When he took over, our morale and fitness levels were low. But in 1-1.5 months, we improved.”

With the result in Canada, India advanced to the HWL semifinals (July 8-22), a qualification tournament for the 2018 World Cup. Savita is optimistic of another good showing, not least because the team now has a proper drag-flicker in Gurjit Kaur. “For one year, we didn't have a drag-flicker,” she says. “If we have only hitters in the team, it becomes very easy for the opposition to work us out at penalty corners. In Canada, we saw the benefit of having Gurjit in the side. She's still a junior player but she's very deceptive with her drag flicks. It's difficult to stop them. All the players feel that way. You don't know which way the ball is going.”