At 31, she is the second oldest player in the team and playing her 300th international match on Tuesday, Vandana Katariya will be in an exclusive club of one as the highest-capped Indian women’s hockey player.
From the 2013 Junior World Cup where she played a crucial role in India winning its only medal (bronze) in the tournament so far to being the only Indian player to have an Olympic hat-trick, Vandana has been indispensable to Indian women’s hockey for more than a decade. Tuesday would only be a culmination of a long journey that started in the bylanes of Haridwar.
“There were a lot of ups and downs in this journey, a lot of struggle. But everyone goes through that, it’s not unique to me. It feels great to reach here but I wasn’t alone. I have two families – the hockey family here that has given me a lot of support and strength through all the low periods and it would have been impossible to do it without them, and my family back home which has supported me unconditionally – who have backed me all along,” Vandana said on her milestone.
‘Team’ and ‘family’ are two words she brings into every sentence and after all these years, she admits the two are interspersed. Spending more than 300 days in an average year in camps and tournaments, hockey invariably becomes her strength and refuge. Like the time some louts derided her family with casteist slurs after India’s loss to Argentina in 2021 at Tokyo. The Indian team rallied as one and captain Rani took little time to come out with a statement of support and criticism.
“We put all our hard work to play for India, struggle and sacrifice so much to represent our country and when we see what is happening – what happened to Vandana’s family – I want to say to people please stop this discrimination, religious division and casteism. This should never happen to any athlete, or a normal person,” she told the media.
It might have been unnerving but for someone who grew up with constant questioning of her choice to play hockey, it only gave added motivation to keep performing. At a stage when most senior players shift to more playmaking roles leaving the flashiness of scoring to youngsters, Vandana continues to get her name on the scoresheet with an impeccable sense of timing and position inside the circle that often sees her shake off her marker with a sudden movement and find space to shoot.
When Sjoerd Marijne took charge of the team, he did shift her to a more supportive role as the creator of goals rather than a finisher and although Vandana was brilliant there too, the constantly missed chances upfront were frustrating to those watching from the outside. Her move back up-front and the freedom to take shots when in position instantly brought in a sharpness to the attack.
Her responsibilities go beyond scoring. As the senior-most player in the side, she admits ensuring a comfort level with the youngsters was crucial. “My responsibility is only to take everyone together and have a bonding on and off the field between the youngest and the oldest players. On field, the team plays as a unit and we support each other. Everyone makes mistakes during the run of the play but it is up to the others to cover it up and ensure there is no let-up in the game. That goes for everyone and myself,” Vandana said.
Her motivation to wake up every day and keep pushing herself is simple – if she is in the team, her presence should add something to it, bring something extra to the side on the field. “My father used to say only one thing – he wanted to see the women’s team at the top, at least once, because he had seen all the hard work from up close. In my mind, what he said is always there – be honest to my work and the game and help the team.”
There are many dreams entwined with hers. “Papa ka, family ka, team ka, hockey fans ka, uske baad apna – sabka sapna leke chalna hai (I have to carry with me everyone’s dreams). There is pressure but I feel pressure is a good thing. Pressure helps turn coal into diamond, it leads you to do better,” she smiled with a shrug.
Unlike most forwards and scorers across sports, she has never been comfortable in the spotlight. Her fist pumps after scoring on the field are often accompanied by a massive roar and she is animated during a game but off the turf, she prefers the huddle to the solo flight.
On Tuesday, however, the spotlight, deservedly, would be all hers.
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