Indian women’s hockey, Commonwealth Games, 20 years ago: The gold that paved the path  

Everything that describes India’s journey to a bronze medal triumph in Birmingham on Sunday can also be ascribed to another match in another English city, Manchester, 20 years ago.

The gold medal-winning Indian team at the Commonwealth Games in 2006.

The gold medal-winning Indian team at the Commonwealth Games in 2006. | Photo Credit:

Everything that describes India’s journey to a bronze medal triumph in Birmingham on Sunday can also be ascribed to another match in another English city, Manchester, 20 years ago.

Indian women’s hockey, Commonwealth Games, knockout match, tense moments, controversies.

Everything that describes India’s journey to a bronze medal triumph in Birmingham on Sunday can also be ascribed to another match in another English city, Manchester, 20 years ago.

Unlike the protagonists of Sunday’s win, however, the 2002 bunch was unfancied and underrated. However, it was a tenacious bunch — one that would not let stuff such as world rankings come in the way of dreams. This bunch of young women gave India’s its first and, so far, only Commonwealth Games hockey gold.

“That was the biggest victory of our career, we can never ever forget that. It changed our lives,” admits Mamta Kharab, then at 20, the baby of the team who became an overnight star. She is the inspiration for  Chak De! India movie character of Komal Chautala.

Mamta Kharab scored the golden goal in the Women’s Field Hockey Final against England in August 2002 at the Commonwealth Games in Manchester. India won gold after a 3-2 win.

Mamta Kharab scored the golden goal in the Women’s Field Hockey Final against England in August 2002 at the Commonwealth Games in Manchester. India won gold after a 3-2 win. | Photo Credit: AFP

The moment is big enough for Mamta to remember not just the win but every detail of the three knockout games. Each of these games came with its own share of unique problems that the team had never faced before.

“The quarterfinal against South Africa was the toughest, tougher than even the next two games. We were trailing 0-3 at half time. It was pouring hard; the ground was heavy and ball movement difficult... (with) chilly winds that froze you to the bone. It was also one of the best matches of my life. It tested us like no other game. At the break we decided as a team that we had nothing to lose and had to go all out.  Match ke baad kisi ke andar kuch nahin bachna chahiye, yehi decide kiya (We decided none of us should have anything more left to give after the game),” she remembers.

Pritam Siwach, one of the seniors of the side then, still gets the shivers thinking of that game. “Our coach (Gurdiyal) Bhangu sir kept saying,  ‘Kuch nahin, sab theek hai (Don’t worry, everything is alright) .’ But our bodies had become stiff as ice! I even told Sita (Gussain), ‘ Kaise utrenge 2nd half mein, sharir jam gaya hai (how will we get on field in the 2nd half, the body is frozen).’ The South Africans, on the other hand, appeared at ease. But we got on and then Mamta sent a cross from the 25-yard line that I couldn’t even see clearly. I dived on instinct and managed to score!”

Pritam Siwach

Pritam Siwach | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

India won 4-3, Sita scoring the winner from a penalty corner and after that, the team would be forgiven for thinking it was invincible. For Mamta, this was the game changer in more ways than just a single win. “That win boosted our morale like nothing before. Back then, New Zealand was a supremely fit and talented side, ranked much higher than us. But we were on a roll! We had the pace and the hunger and after the quarterfinals, the momentum was with us. That carried us all the way into the final,” says Mamta.

If the conditions tested the Indians once, it was umpiring that tried to rattle them next. Against New Zealand, India came from behind to level the score 1-1 two minutes before break, then had to contend with a penalty stroke first awarded then snatched away amid protests, before Mamta struck home a penalty corner rebound in the 62nd minute, with India reduced to 10 players. Captain Suraj Lata Devi was sent off for protesting. The stroke, incidentally, was awarded to India four minutes earlier after a goal-bound Pritam was deliberately blocked. It was taken away because India’s Jyoti Sunita Kullu apparently took ‘too much time’. “I don’t know why it happens with Indian women’s hockey, especially in England!  Kuch extraordinary karna padta hai tabhi kuch milta hai (we have to do something extraordinary and only then do we get the result), nothing comes easy for us,” Mamta shrugs.

TRIVIA
For the uninitiated, hockey matches then were played for 70 minutes over two halves of 35 minutes each. There were no 8-second shoot-outs like now; the matches were played for an extra 15 minutes (7-1/2 min each) after regulation time, then went into penalties. There was a golden goal rule where the first team to score in extra time was the winner.

The final against England, though, saw peak controversy. Under pressure against a relentless, superior host in front of a highly vocal, capacity crowd, the Indians held the upper hand much against the run of play with a 2-0 lead before England fought back to level the score. The score held at the end of 70 minutes and the match looked to be heading to penalties before India earned a penalty corner in the last 40 seconds. Mamta slotted in a deflection even as the hooter went. The Indians celebrated, the English protested and both waited for more than an hour for the final result.

“Honestly, we did not think we could win gold even though we were in the final.  But phir humein laga hum to bahut achha khel rahe hain aur hum England jaisi team ko maar sakte hain aur gold bhi jeet bhi sakte hain (When we started the match, we realised we were actually playing very well and could actually win gold). Then we got that PC. I used to be the pusher and fullback Suman Bala was the hitter. The ball just rolled past the goalkeeper and I think I was lucky to spot it and tap in quickly. But the hooter had gone and so it was not clear what the score actually was,” Mamta laughs.

Pritam agrees. “It’s true that our medal was confirmed once we reached the final but we wanted to go one step ahead even though we knew that teams such as England and Australia were miles ahead of us.  Sach kahun toh tab aur baad mein result kuch bhi ho, maine waisi teams nahi dekhi uske baad (To be honest, no matter what the result, I have not seen teams as good as them even later). They were simply too good, too fast. Our first target was to defend well, not concede too many and give people a chance to say we reached the final by fluke. They got at least 15 PCs, but our goalkeepers, Helen Mary and Tingonleima Chanu, were good, as was our rusher, Manjinder Kaur. And then came the golden goal when we didn’t think of time at all.”

But Pritam also has a clearer idea of what happened. Or, what she believes happened, since there is no single definitive version of the incident. “What we believe is that there was a hooter that went from the technical bench on the sidelines to mark the end of time. But the PC had been started and it had to be completed before play was called off. Also, the on-field umpires had not blown the whistle yet. The English girls reacted to the hooter, while we focused on the umpire. It took almost an hour for the technical officials to decide in our favour,” she explains.

BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - AUGUST 07: Bronze Medallists Team India celebrate during the Women's Hockey Medal Ceremony on day ten of the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games at University of Birmingham Hockey & Squash Centre on August 07, 2022 on the Birmingham, England. (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)

BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - AUGUST 07: Bronze Medallists Team India celebrate during the Women's Hockey Medal Ceremony on day ten of the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games at University of Birmingham Hockey & Squash Centre on August 07, 2022 on the Birmingham, England. (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images) | Photo Credit: Dean Mouhtaropoulos

Mamta remembers sitting in the dressing room, waiting for a result, any result. “We had changed and cooled down and everything was over and we were sitting in the dressing room and had no idea what had happened, whether we had won or not. Imagine if the game had to be restarted after that for the penalty strokes!  But aisa hi hota hai hamare saath. Jeetne ke baad bhi ladna padta hai jeet ke liye (This always happens to us. We have to keep fighting even after winning to win).”

That 2002 win inspired an entire generation of girls, including Rani Rampal, to dream. “ Woh gold aane se mere jaise players ne socha tha hockey khelne ka (players like me thought of playing hockey because of that gold),” says Rani. It also became part of the folklore through movies and the players remain the Golden Girls of Indian hockey, winning against all odds and almost replicating the magic four years later (India won silver in 2006). Sunday will, hopefully, do the trick again.

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