A fresh beginning for Indian women’s hockey

When the girls cried on the turf after losing a cracker of a contest 3-4 against Britain in the bronze medal match, the whole of India was moved to tears. It was as brave as any team could have fought in the Olympics. The girls had won the hearts of the nation with their courageous performance.

So near yet so far: India’s captain Rani Rampal is dejected after losing the women's hockey bronze medal match against Great Britain, at the 2020 Summer Olympics, in Tokyo, India lost the match 3-4. “We fought well. Unfortunately, it was not our day,” said Rani.   -  PTI

When the Indian women’s hockey team lost its first three matches in the league stage in Tokyo — to the Netherlands, Germany and Britain — there was no hint about the flood of emotions in a heady climax.

Eventually, when the girls cried on the turf after losing a cracker of a contest 3-4 against Britain in the bronze medal match, the whole of India was moved to tears. It was as brave as any team could have fought in the Olympics. The girls had won the hearts of the nation with their courageous performance.

“When you work with such dedication for something, when it comes so close to you and goes away, your mind goes somewhere,” explained goalkeeper Savita Punia, a star who played a splendid role in taking the team so close to an Olympic medal.

“We fought well. Unfortunately, it was not our day,” said Rani Rampal, captain of the team.

It was a hard blow for the team when the dream was shattered and the fourth place came as a rude awakening, albeit signalling a remarkable resurgence from the last place in Rio.

RELATED| India men's Olympic hockey bronze: Replacing individual brilliance with collective efficiency

RELATED| Sjoerd Marijne ensured all-round improvement of the Indian women's team - E. Rajani

“It was very difficult to get out of the sadness. We remembered everything. What we had done in the past year and a half. We were away from our families. Trained hard in the heat, 35 degrees at noon, wearing jackets, in the killer red sessions that drive you crazy. All the sacrifices and struggles come to your mind, when you lose so close from victory, it hurts. It pinches you a lot. It took us two days to recover,” recalled Rani.

The warmth of reception, ‘the respect and love’ of the people as the women’s team felt no different to the medal winning men’s team, infused fresh hope of a bright future, among the players .

As much as the dramatic finish, the recovery was like a dream sequence.

RELATED| How pickle juice helped the Indian women's hockey team achieve Olympic history

“We had lost hope after losing three matches. You start thinking that the team may crash out. Our coaching staff helped us a lot. We believed that we still had a chance to make the quarterfinals,” said Rani.

The team did achieve its primary task by beating Ireland and South Africa to book a quarterfinal berth against former champion Australia.

“We did bounce back and reach the quarterfinals in a different way. The start was a heart break, but to get up and perform, you need a lot of courage. We did it,” said Rani.

It was a herculean task to match wits against Australia, which had conceded only one goal in the league, topping the other group.

The Indian team humbled Australia with the penalty corner drive by Gurjit Kaur, and Savita Punia diffusing all tension on the Indian goal with alacrity, right through the 60 minutes.

“The quarterfinals of the Olympics was the turning point for Indian women’s hockey. It was the most memorable moment. To play a strong team like Australia and beat it. The whole team played the match so well. That match will remain in our memory for life. It taught us a lot. If you don’t give up and put in your 100%, anything is possible,” said Savita.

Quite understandably, Rani was all praise for Savita for her consistently brilliant work through the Olympics.

“Savita was outstanding. You have all seen it. We reached the semifinals of the Olympics because of her. Even in the bronze medal match she saved a lot. She is the Wall of India,” said Rani, with pride in her eyes.

RELATED| India's Olympic fourth place finishes: From Milkha Singh, PT Usha to Aditi Ashok, women's hockey team

The captain attributed the strong performance of the Indian team to its high physical fitness.

“We used to lack in fitness against European teams. They used to dominate us in that aspect. Wayne Lombard, our scientific adviser, focused a lot on the team’s fitness. We don’t lack in fitness against any team now. If you have good fitness, we can use our Indian skill in a much better way,” observed Rani.

Already with some of the State governments recognising the women’s hockey players for the fourth-place finish with suitable cash awards, there is hope of all the hard work being rewarded in some way. That will be a great motivation for the team, as it embarks on another long journey towards the next World Cup.

“Next year is very important for us. We have the Commonwealth Games, Asian Games, the Asia Cup for World Cup qualification. We will do better next year,” said Rani.

RELATED| Sjoerd Marijne: This was my last match with Indian women's hockey team

In the last World Cup, Indian women had reached the quarterfinals. The target would be to win a World Cup medal, when it is hosted at home.

As Savita pointed out, “you will get success, if you work hard with dedication and honesty.”

It is just a fresh beginning for Indian women’s hockey. There is a lot to aspire and achieve. The team has the belief that it can march forward, taking the graph upwards.

The medal eluded the team’s grasp, but the women’s hockey team made it unforgettable in the quarterfinals against Australia, and the bronze match against Britain.

“We will do better next year,” assured Rani.