Hockey Olympic Qualifiers: Indian women gear up for USA test with Tokyo berth in sight

The last face-off was a draw and both teams would be keen to avoid that in the first leg on Friday, a victory giving crucial breathing space in the second.

(From left to right) India women's hockey team coach Sjoerd Marijne, captain Rani Rampal, USA women hockey team captain Kathleen Sharkey and coach Janneke Schopman,   -  BISWARANJAN ROUT

Over the next two days, compatriots Sjoerd Marijne and Janneke Schopman would be in opposing camps, trying to go one-up on each other at the Olympic Qualifiers here.

The two are in charge of teams that have had contrasting histories at the Olympics and on field, Rani Rampal and Kathleen Sharkey would be hoping to make preparations over the last 12 months count. Sharkey at 29 is five years older to Rani but in every other aspect of leadership, the Indian skipper is far ahead.

Rani has been part of India’s ascent over the last decade, the lynchpin of its success, a leader since her junior days and the talisman that drives this side. She also has 60 matches more under her belt. Most importantly, she leads a side that has been together for a long time. Unlike Sharkey, who is one of only three USA women here with over 100 caps.

Numbers favour USA – with a 22-4 record – and India last beat USA in July 2016 but since then has improved in every department including fitness, understanding the game and taking responsibility. The last face-off was a draw and both teams would be keen to avoid that in the first leg on Friday, a victory giving crucial breathing space in the second.

READ | Hockey Olympic Qualifiers: India men's and women's teams gear up for Tokyo challenge

“I have read about coaches who see the two as a single match but I don’t. For us it is two matches and we will take it one-by-one. You can see from the result on Friday what you have to adjust and that works best for us,” Marijne said on the eve of the first of the two games that would decide who gets a ticket to Tokyo 2020.

Schopman belonged to the other category. “It is difficult for teams to get used to a system like this, playing back-to-back deciders. It’s like the first half is played on Friday and the 2nd on Saturday. You just have to see how it goes,” she shrugged.

It’s the final step for both sides. “Our first target was to qualify for Tokyo at the Asian games last year but unfortunately that did not happen. And the moment Asiad was over, our next target was these qualifiers and these two games are what we focussed on and trained and waited for the whole year,” Rani admitted.

Marijne agreed. “We knew we were going to play these games, we just didn’t know whether it would be home or away and against whom. But we were living for these matches and now the moment is here,” he said.

Sharkey was unperturbed about the host crowd's reputation. "We played away at eight countries in the Pro League so I think we are prepared for that," she said.

The last time USA toured India, 18 years ago, it left without playing a game, claiming security concerns. In 48 hours, India would be hoping to prove USA wrong, both on and off the field.

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