Missing out on gold medal and a Paris Olympics berth in the Hangzhou Asian Games had cast doubts on the ability, selection, coaching and even attitude of the Indian women’s hockey team.
It looked riddled with self-doubt throughout the tournament and crashed out in the semifinal against host and eventual champion China.
Later, both the coach and players admitted they weren’t good enough.
And so, when the Asian Champions Trophy (ACT) came around in less than a month’s time, Janneke Schopman and her girls knew what they were up against — recent form, naysayers, self-doubt and scrutiny from the Federation.
There were also the larger-than-expected crowds — something that the Indian men’s team is used to, but is a novelty for the women. Yeah, no pressure!
But by the end of the competition, it was clear that the team had regained the confidence and belief of being Asia’s best.
The uncertainties were replaced with a smooth on-field rhythm and the hunger for the Olympic ticket was renewed afresh. It was also a relief for Hockey India officials, knowing that immediate, knee-jerk actions were not needed.
As captain Savita stood tall — in more ways than one — with a trophy India had won only once before (in 2016), the team of 20-odd girls had finally shown their true mettle.
A good problem to have
With almost the entire squad retained from the Asian Games, India was out to find itself in the ACT.
And it managed to do so, along with a few youngsters who gave Schopman a “good problem of plenty” in selection, even as the likes of Navjot Kaur and Sharmila Devi continue to push for a return.
The 21-year-old Simdega duo of Salima Tete and Sangita Kumari finished as the Player-of-the-Tournament and India’s top-scorer, respectively. Despite playing out of their comfort zone, they brought balance to the team, while staying true to their potential and ability to adapt and perform.
Their confident and aggressive attacking game high up in the field is in stark contrast to past players from their region, who preferred to be defenders or at best defensive midfielders. It’s a transition as much in the mind and attitude as in performance. The fact that the duo soaked up the attention from the local crowd and fed on it augurs well too.
However, the experience of the injured Sushila Chanu was missed. And, Vaishnavi Phalke, the only one to be dropped, found herself drafted back in after Sonika was ruled out with a possible concussion injury following an on-field collision.
Even Savita, unwell for almost the entirety of the tournament, got respite with Bichu Devi even playing the entire pool match against Korea. It will be interesting to see how she shapes up as India prepares for life after Savita.
For now, however, the Indian captain proved that there was no one close to her. A penalty save in the final only underlined her brilliance over the entire week.
As much as the youngsters impressed with their speed and scoring skills, India’s success was largely built on the solidity and experience at the back, where the trio of Deep Grace Ekka, Udita and Nikki Pradhan ensured there were no loose balls for the rivals.
With Neha often falling back to augment the defence and Nisha and Jyoti doing their bit, India’s defence was impenetrable. Deep Grace deservedly stepped up to receive the Player-of-the-Match award in the final. That India conceded only three goals through seven matches is proof.
Areas of concern
Not everything was flawless, though. Schopman was upfront about her displeasure about the team’s on-field discipline. India had the dubious distinction of earning the most cards throughout the tournament — five green and yellow each — with many of them coming in the final quarter of the matches.
“I keep telling them — no cards,” Schopman shrugged after every game, only for it to happen again.
In the semifinal, India found two of her most experienced players —Vandana Katariya and Udita — sitting out with five-minute suspensions in the final seven minutes.
It didn’t help that most of the fouls came in open play and were completely unnecessary. It may not have affected much against relatively weaker Asian sides but come the Olympic qualifiers and the team could get hurt badly against teams like Germany and New Zealand.
Schopman would also be looking closely at penalty corners. Although it got better in the last couple of games, India still converted only eight out of the 36 it earned. Most of them were follow-up PCs, with problems in both stopping and flicking.
Deepika is still raw and unreliable, and though Deep Grace steps in often, India lacks a match-winning flicker like Gurjit Kaur, currently out of favour.
While all teams struggled in this department on the recently relaid turf that didn’t have enough time or matches to get settled, India would do well to look at it with a long-term view.
It may not make up for the lost opportunity of qualifying directly for Paris but it does put the team in a much better position to do so when the Qualifiers come around in less than two months.
With WACT runner-up Japan being one of the other seven teams — Chile, Germany, Italy, USA, New Zealand and Czech Republic being the others — it will not be easy. But the fact that it will be held again in Ranchi will be a bonus.
The knowledge of conditions and how the turf behaves will also help. The team also will be without the burden of having to win. A top-three finish is enough to secure passage. Most importantly, it now knows what a vocal capacity crowd behind you can do and that it will be an advantage, not added pressure.
Four years back, the Indian women had to take a similar, longer and tougher route to qualification. They sealed it eventually at home in Bhubaneswar against USA, coached, interestingly, by Schopman back then. The Tokyo Olympics then proved to be a turning point for the game in India.
With the WACT providing the reset platform it needed, the team will hope there is bigger success in store this time around.
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