‘I am ready to slog it out and prove I am better’

Jasjeet Kaur (right) in the thick of action against Azerbaijan, at the National Stadium in New Delhi, during the Test series in India. “I have lost weight but I have not lost the hunger to score and win,” says Jasjeet.-R.V. MOORTHY Jasjeet Kaur (right) in the thick of action against Azerbaijan, at the National Stadium in New Delhi, during the Test series in India. “I have lost weight but I have not lost the hunger to score and win,” says Jasjeet.

“After 10 years of playing for India, I thought I deserved at least some respect. But the way I was treated, it made me wonder if it was all worth it,” says Jasjeet Kaur in this brief interview with Uthra Ganesan.

She was the wonder girl of Indian hockey before falling out of favour. She is considered part of the “senior brigade” that takes its place for granted. A combination of injuries, poor form, fitness concerns and “attitude issues” have kept Jasjeet Kaur Handa out of the national fold for more than a year now.

But anyone who saw the 25-year-old at the 2013 National women’s hockey championship, that recently concluded in Lucknow, would vouch for the fact that, on field, Jasjeet has no match in the country at present. The fiery forward of Asia Cup 2004 and Asian Games 2006 has matured into an astute midfield marshal, trebling as the lone drag-flicker for the team and shoring up the attack. That the ever-dominant Railways was stumped in the final by a fighting and well-orchestrated Haryana takes nothing away from Jasjeet’s performance.

The loss still rankled and no Railways player was willing to talk much. “We tried,” she said simply, clamming up again. A long silence ensued, before she spoke again. “We lacked in attack. I had no support. We were not even told we had to participate. We were all summoned just three days before the tournament began. Till then, half of this team was practicing with the rest of Haryana players and preparing to represent the state! How could we have found our rhythm?” she said, the words coming out in a flurry.

These may sound excuses from a defeated side but Jasjeet was right on one thing: she tried. Often accused of not bothering with her fitness, putting on weight and shying away from hard work as a national player, the Jasjeet one saw here was different. Fitter, leaner and faster — Jasjeet was wrong-footing opponents with ease, dodging past midfielders and defenders at will and displaying amazing ball control.

“I have lost weight but I have not lost the hunger to score and win. In the last one year, I have been constantly practicing at Shahbad (in Haryana), working on my fitness, concentrating on my game. In fact, most of these Haryana players who have defeated us are those youngsters whom we train back home,” she said, with a wry smile on her face.

At no point through the competition did Jasjeet falter. In the final, Railways earned seven penalty corners but Jasjeet herself took only one shot. Playing as a right half, Jasjeet’s runs down the flank were impressive, her finding the gaps impeccable. Most of the goals that Railways did get through the tournament were set up by her.

So why wasn’t she on the plane to Holland with the national team? “The biggest reward for any player is respect earned. Things were bad during the Olympic qualifiers last year. I am not saying I should get any special treatment. But the least I expect is being told my faults, not being ignored on the bench without a reason. It was disappointing,” said Jasjeet, opening up after some time.

“After 10 years of playing for India, I thought I deserved at least some respect. But the way I was treated, it made me wonder if it was all worth it,” she said. After that, Jasjeet decided to skip national camps and concentrate on playing the domestic circuit.

There are those who are critical of her decision, claiming Jasjeet should have been part of the camps to prove her detractors wrong. Railways manager Madhu Yadav was at her caustic best. “All these players, they think they are prima donnas. They know they have a secure job. They think they cannot be faulted. If someone says something to them, they don’t like it,” she said. The taunts were as much for the Railways’ defeat as for the refusal to appear for national selection.

But Jasjeet differed. “I am from Shahbad. I learnt my hockey under Baldev (Singh) sir. Anyone who knows him also knows he isn’t exactly a soft person. But I have never felt bad when he scolds, screams or punishes. Because, at the end of the day, he respects us as players and helps us improve. It’s all about respect,” she said.

As for national duty, she knows she would never be an automatic choice. “I am ready to slog it out and prove I am better than the rest, and only then will I stake a claim,” she says. At the moment, though, she remains undecided.

The national team, meanwhile, is suffering. On the preparatory tour of Holland ahead of the Hockey World League Round 3, they were routed by the Dutch national side and thrashed by even low-rung second division clubs. Jasjeet’s return may well plug the holes in attack, midfield and penalty corners. If that happens.